Tennessee inmate on death row for 28 years fights for his freedom

Kevin Burns is seeking clemency from Gov. Bill Lee.

September 27, 2023, 11:38 AM

Kevin Burns is on death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

Still, Burns, 54, who has been at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Tennessee for 28 years, remains hopeful.

“This is the best day of my life,” Burns said during a phone interview with ABC News when asked how he was doing.

Burns’ story started in West Memphis, Arkansas -- a rural trucking hub with a poverty rate more than double the national average. He finished high school but did not go to college. He worked at the popular southern restaurant chain Shoney’s and, in his free time, he was part of a rap group called S.I.R.

“He was kind, hardworking and good in school. A good son, kind and respectful,” Leslie Burns, Burns’ mother, told ABC News.

Burns’ road to death row began on April 20, 1992 – his 23rd birthday. It would be the last birthday he would spend as a free man.

Burns said he thought he was going to a recording studio that day with his friends Derrick Garrin, Carlito Adams, Kevin Shaw and two others to celebrate.

“I think my friends are planning a surprise party for me,” he told ABC News. “I'm excited and looking forward to celebrating my big day.”

PHOTO: Kevin Burns is seen here in an undated photo.
Kevin Burns is seen here in an undated photo.
Obtained by ABC News

What Burns didn’t know at the time was that his friend, Adams, had gotten into a fight with someone at a pick-up basketball game a few days earlier and wanted to fight. The car Burns was in made a detour and ended up in a Memphis neighborhood.

The men parked, got out of the car, and approached four men in another parked car in a driveway. What happened next would decide Burns’ fate.

“I see Kevin Shaw extending his hand to me,” Burns told ABC News. “I look and he has a gun in his hand. I asked, ‘What’s the gun for?’ Shaw said, 'just to make sure it's a fair fight’. Against everything, I made the most foolish decision I've made in my life. I took that gun,” he said.

The men in the parked car were robbed. And then shots were fired.

Burns said he never actually shot the gun, because as soon as he heard the gunshots, he said he crouched on the ground until it was over.

In the end, two people were murdered: Damond Dawson, 17, and Tracey Johnson, 23.

“I regret the whole thing happened, I regret even being present on that day,” said Burns, who has become an ordained minister while behind bars. “Most of all, I regret that those two young men had to lose their lives. And now, their families are suffering.”

PHOTO: Kevin Burns is seen here in an undated photo.
Kevin Burns is seen here in an undated photo.
Obtained by ABC News

Burns was convicted in 1995 on two counts of felony murder, receiving a death sentence for the murder of Dawson and a life sentence for the murder of Johnson.

When Burns was convicted of felony murder, the jury had to only find that Burns participated in the robbery, not that he shot or killed anyone. During the closing arguments and the sentencing phase of the trial, the state changed course -- claiming that Burns was the shooter.

Even though Burns had the legal right to remain silent, his counsel at the time stated that Burns' refusal to testify helped seal his fate; that had he testified, the jury would have seen that his involvement was not significant enough to get him the death penalty.

Burns claims that his attorneys at the time never challenged the state’s narrative that he killed Dawson -- despite witness accounts.

The witness’ description of the shooter conflicts with Burns' actual appearance, and there are significant discrepancies regarding the guns involved in the murders, according to Richard Tennent, Burns’ lawyer.

Derrick Garrin and Carlito Adams were both sentenced to life in prison for the murders of Dawson and Johnson. Both men have since been released on parole.

Kevin Shaw surrendered to police some of the guns that he gave out the day of the shooting to avoid prosecution. One of those guns was handled by Burns.

Burns is the only one involved in the incident who is still in prison and sentenced to death.

In April, the Supreme Court decided not to hear Burns’ case, his last chance for an appeal. In her dissent, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The Court’s decision [...] means that Burns now faces execution despite a very robust possibility that he did not shoot Dawson but that the jurors, acting on incomplete information, sentenced him to death because they thought he had [...] The Court’s failure to act is disheartening.”

PHOTO: Kevin Burns is seen here in an undated photo.
Kevin Burns is seen here in an undated photo.
Obtained by ABC News

Burns’ parents continue to have faith their son will be freed.

“I believe that God is going to deliver him,” said Obra Carter, Burns’ father who’s also a pastor. “I'm praying that the whole world will get a chance to see his case, read the dissent and know that our son was falsely accused.”

Any hope to get Burns’ sentence vacated or commuted now rests squarely in the hands of Republican Gov. Bill Lee. ABC News’ multiple requests for comment on Burns’ case to Lee’s office have gone unanswered.

Burns’ execution date has yet to be set.

ABC News’ Tonya Simpson contributed to this report.