Johnny Burr has been on death row since 1993 for beating a child to death. In all that time, no jury has ever heard that there is another medical explanation for the baby’s death from brain injuries: The fact that she was dropped by her brother just a few hours before her death.
Quick Facts: Johnny Burr
- Race: White
- County: Alamance County
- Date of Crime: August 24, 1991
- Victim: Tarissa “Susie” O’Daniel, Age 4 months
- Conviction Date: April 16, 1993
- Execution Date: No date has been set, Burr remains on death row
- Errors: On death row for more than 20 years, and no jury has ever heard the evidence that could prove his innocence.
Burr, who has always professed his innocence, received a substandard defense from lawyers who failed to do even the most basic investigation into his case. The lawyers were so uninformed that they never challenged the testimony of several doctors who ruled out a fall as the cause of the child’s death. The doctors told the jury that the baby had a severe skull fracture that could not have been caused by a fall.
After the trial, when appellate lawyers finally reviewed the autopsy, it was clear that the doctors were mistaken — the child never had a skull fracture.
This was among several lapses that led the jury to believe that the only possible cause of this child’s death was a severe beating. The jurors never heard evidence that might have proven Burr’s innocence.
Tarissa “Susie” O’Daniel died on August 25, 1991, at four months old, after Burr and the child’s mother rushed the bruised and unresponsive infant to the hospital. The mother had left a sleeping Susie with Burr, who was her boyfriend, for about 45 minutes. When the mother returned, she changed Susie’s diaper and realized that she was injured.
On the day Susie died and in the days following, Susie’s mother told doctors, investigators, and social workers that Susie had been involved in a serious fall several hours before her death. Susie’s 8-year-old brother had been carrying her when he tripped over an electrical cord and fell on top of Susie. The boy confirmed this account. After the accident, Susie’s arm was twitching and it took her hours to stop crying, the mother said.
Yet, at trial, the fall was described as a minor incident in which Susie had been unharmed and never touched the ground. Burr’s lawyers had not reviewed the files thoroughly enough to see how drastically the description of the fall had changed, so the jury never heard the alternative account.
Instead, several doctors testified that the baby had a severe skull fracture that could not have been caused by a fall. One doctor even described a hole the size of a ping-pong ball that had been bashed into Susie’s skull.
The autopsy showed that the baby had no skull fracture — but Burr’s lawyers had not read the autopsy, so they never challenged the false testimony.
Burr’s lawyers simply hadn’t had time to prepare for his trial. They were assigned the case just over two months before the trial began. The lead lawyer had six pending capital cases at the time. The other lawyer had no capital experience and practiced mostly real estate law. Both were solo practitioners and had no colleagues to call on for help.
On the Friday before Burr’s trial began, his lawyers begged the judge to postpone it. They said they had not yet done any of the necessary work to defend him, such as reviewing the medical records in the case or finding expert witnesses. The next Monday, their request was denied and jury selection started the same day.
The lawyers failed to present any evidence about the fall, or the possibility that it was the cause of Susie’s death.
In fact, Burr’s own defense lawyer virtually assured Burr’s conviction in his opening statements, when he conceded to the jury that Susie’s death was the result of a beating that happened during the time when Burr was babysitting her. The lawyer hadn’t spent enough time reviewing the medical records to know that it was possible the child died from injuries sustained in the fall, and that Burr was innocent.
After the trial, Burr’s lawyer admitted in court filings that “the Defendant has not received adequate assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and North Carolina Constitution.”
Burr’s appellate lawyers presented supplemental evidence, including a sworn affidavit from a forensic pathologist who said that Susie’s injuries were consistent with being dropped and fallen on top of. They also presented medical literature confirming that falls, even from short distances, can cause devastating brain injuries in children. The courts refused to consider this new evidence.
A jury should have the chance to hear this evidence and decide whether Burr is innocent of murder. However, the courts have refused to grant Burr a new trial. He has exhausted his appeals, aside from a claim under the now-repealed Racial Justice Act.