Surviving injustice

Justice Policy Institute
6 min readOct 2, 2023

By: Shelby Sorrells

October 2nd, 2023 marks the tenth anniversary of Wrongful Conviction Day as launched internationally by the Innocence Network, an affiliation of organizations providing pro-bono legal services to individuals seeking to prove their innocence. This day brings awareness to the issue of wrongful convictions through discussions on actual cases and proposed solutions, aiming to mitigate this global problem.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the United States stands alone with more than 3,200 exonerations since 1989. While researching, I was unable to find comparative exoneration data but based on the U.S.’s history with slavery, mass incarceration, and an overall tough-on-crime approach to the legal system, it is believed that we greatly outrank other nations in wrongful convictions. Yet the vast majority of individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes are not exonerated. A study found an overall wrongful conviction rate of about 6 percent in the general state prison population, with conviction-specific variability. With over one million people currently incarcerated, that equates to over 70,000 innocent individuals in America’s prison system right now.

To deepen my understanding of wrongful convictions, I had the opportunity to interview one of JPI’s staff members, Troy Burner. He was found guilty of aiding and abetting a fatal D.C. shooting in 1990 and spent more than 24 years in prison before being exonerated in 2020.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you give me a summary of your case and how you got on law enforcement’s radar?

So this was a particular time in the city where [D.C. was] the murder capital of America. So [the police] have all these cold cases open and it’s important to close these cases. The case that I actually was found guilty of involved some guys that I frequently spent time with in 1990. My name came up and [the police] felt inclined to use me to get information about the case in order to get quicker convictions.

[The police] originally came [to me] and admitted that they knew that I didn’t have anything to do with it, but that it would be very beneficial for me and for them to just say that the guys did it. I didn’t actually know who did it, but believing that everything was okay, I just went on. And a couple of months later, the same witness that told them that I didn’t have anything to do with it, reversed course and said I was there on the corner. And that’s kind of what stuck despite the fact that there were other witnesses out there who didn’t see this. And the vagueness of the outdated D.C. criminal code allowed them to essentially trap me as a conspirator without actually charging me with conspiracy. And I was found guilty.

Q: During your trial, did you remain confident in the justice system? Did you believe you would be found innocent?

Well, I had a pre-trial hearing, which determines the probability of your involvement in a crime. And I had that hearing and I was released maybe three or four days later. When I was out there for 13 months waiting to go to trial, there was a sense of “I wasn’t there, this is not a concern of mine.” Once the trial started and I was sitting there and each time that I heard testimony with my name, I’m telling my lawyer “That’s a lie.” And I’m trying to, essentially beg the jury, as well as the court. The narrative that was posed continued to be pushed but I still didn’t really think that I was going to be found guilty.

But I will say this, there was a point on one of the last days of trial when I went to court that morning, I had to express to my grandmother my apologies. And the apologies were because she warned me a long time ago to not hang around with the guy, who ultimately falsely testified of my involvement. So that morning, there was a moment where I apologized and she was like, “What’s going on?” I was like, “Something just don’t feel right.” And I said, “I just want to take this opportunity to apologize to you for being hard-headed, and it seems as though I’m about to pay for it.” So on the way to the court that morning, I realized that there was a high probability that, even though I didn’t feel as though the case had been proven, I was going to prison.

Q: Who were your advocates while you were in prison? Did you have to learn the law yourself?

I immediately started going to the law library every day because I felt as though there was no sense in whatever was happening to me if I was not able to understand it. But going into prison, I had no team. And that’s one of the things that puts an individual kind of further behind the eight ball. Because you have a right to counsel, but there’s a difference between having counsel and having an actual advocate. An advocate is someone who’s going to work with you through their feelings and their emotions and has your best interest in mind. So aside from my mom and my family, I can’t really say what advocates I had. I wrote hundreds of letters to law schools and professors. And my whole thing was I just needed somebody to listen.

Q: Can you explain your release by the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) and how the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project got involved with you?

I had attempted to reach out to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project twice before, around 2006 and 2008, but they rejected me. Later on, I wrote a letter to Seth Rosenthal, who was the chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and as they say, the rest is history. In terms of IRAA, that didn’t really matter to me at first because I still knew that I was innocent. It wasn’t just about freedom for me, it was about somehow trying to salvage what I believe the system reduced to a remnant. I had intentions of filing it myself, but I still wanted to make sure that my filing was not giving up my right to continue with my petition for actual innocence. I told them that if I had to continue to still be locked up to continue my actual innocence claim, that was what I was willing to do. And they assured me I had nothing to worry about, and we proceeded with my IRAA petition.

On November 5th 2018, I was released from BOP custody due to my successful IRAA petition. But being ‘free’, was not the end of the road for me. I continued to proceed with my innocence claim.

But then in 2019, I got really sick with pneumonia. I was in a coma for almost a month and a half. I had to go to rehab to learn to walk again. I had to learn to talk again and everything. Four days after being released from rehab, that’s when I found out that my conviction had been vacated. I came home from rehab on the 22nd of March [2020]. Four days later, which was March 26th, is the day that I learned my conviction had been overturned.

The emotions I felt from my conviction being overturned are on-going. Vindicated, relieved, joyful, sad, empowered, encouraged, excited. Although I had worked toward this from the moment I was found guilty, and had actually visualized getting my conviction overturned, this moment was and continues to be surreal for me.

Q: How has this experience shaped you as a person?

We have things in our life that happen and there’s no rhyme or reason and it’s wrong. For a long time, I internalized a lot of things and spent a long time trying to figure out the why, to no avail. Even prior to coming home, I had an intense war with being resentful, with being bitter, with being angry. And that’s a war that I’ll say I won because at any point, if I’d have been driven by any of those negative emotions, I wouldn’t be here today. God does things for a reason. And for whatever reason, he felt it was necessary to wrongfully spend a large part of my life in prison. But in understanding that now, it makes you dig further to better understand the overall plan. There are forces in our lives beyond our control and understanding, I have no doubt about that. It just gives you that understanding of appreciation and seeking a purpose.

Since his exoneration, Troy has gone on to establish the Venable-Burner Exoneree Support Fund with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. This fund provides mental health counseling, employment assistance, and advocacy training to help exonerees succeed in their freedom.

Shelby Sorrells is a Senior at the University of Florida, studying Criminology and Psycology



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