A Dark History: Prosecuting Violent Offenders

Winston Leroy Burton (Photo: Northampton County Sheriff's Office)

NASSAWADOX, Va. (WAVY) - Next week, the court case against a man accused of murdering his girlfriend on the Eastern Shore will move forward.

Northampton County Sheriff's deputies arrested Winston Burton in November, after they say he stabbed Shelli Crockett to death in the parking lot of the hospital where she worked.

Court records show Crockett, identified by family members as Burton's ex-girlfriend, had taken out a protective order against him two months before her death.

A 10 On Your Side investigation uncovered Burton's violent criminal history, which goes back to 1976, when he committed burglary and grand larceny as a teenager.

From 1980 to 2005, he would go on to send a man to the hospital because of a bar fight, repeatedly stab his wife with a steak knife, shoot his live-in girlfriend and stab another girlfriend's son.

Louise Taylor, who recovered after Burton shot her in 1992, wonders how he kept getting out of prison to commit more crimes.

"To me, it seemed like every case he had, seemed like he didn't get much time for each one of them," she said.

Burton spent one year in jail on the malicious wounding charge, stemming from the 1980 bar fight.

In 1982, he went to prison for stabbing his wife, and spent just three years behind bars.

When a jury convicted him in 1993 of breaking into Taylor's house and shooting her, they sentenced him to 27 years. He served less than half that, and got out in 2004.

Andy Protogyrou, a long-time criminal defense lawyer, points to two factors which would prevent such a thing from happening now.

First, in the early 1990s, parole laws meant it was common for criminals to serve less than a quarter of their sentence.

"In today's world, even with what he received, he would have remained in custody until about 2015," said Protogyrou.

That's because in 1995, Virginia enacted Truth in Sentencing, which means convicts have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

Burton would have had to serve, at minimum, 22 years and 11 months of his 1993 sentence.

The post-1995 system also means that juries get to see prior convictions before they recommend a sentence.

Burton's 1993 jury never knew that he was already convicted of two violent crimes. If they had, he likely would have gotten the maximum sentence of 42 years, putting him behind bars until the year 2035.

"He'd still be in custody today. He never would have committed another crime," Protogyrou said.

Burton didn't get a 42-year sentence, though, or even serve the 27 he did get. Instead, he was out of prison by 2004, and the next year, stabbed his girlfriend's son.

Northampton County prosecutor Bruce Jones reached a plea deal, and Burton served another 10 years.

In previous conversations, Jones would not say why he allowed a plea deal, or whether he considers it a mistake.

But it may be because it's often difficult to get victims of domestic violence to cooperate, according to Protogyrou.

"It forces the prosecutors into certain circumstances to resolve those cases as best as possible," he said. "So it's not an outlier."

Neither were the cases in 1980, 1982, or 1992, where the laws simply were not tough enough to keep even a person as violent as Burton in prison.

"Nothing failed according to the law of the time," Protogyrou said.

Burton is due back in court March 2.

Resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence are available from the Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence and at multiple locations in Hampton Roads, including Samaritan House and H.E.R. Shelter.

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