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“He's doing time for something I done.”

-- Charles Dorsey, 1998
Prosecutorial Misfeasance and Misconduct

Sabein Burgess became an easy mark when, on the evening of October 5, 1994, police found him cradling his dying girlfriend in his arms. She had been recently shot.  So certain were prosecutors that Burgess was responsible for Michelle Dyson's murder, that all evidence was construed as pointing to his guilt, notwithstanding the inconclusiveness of key elements.  Years later, the actual gunman would be identified.  Eventually, Burgess was exonerated of the crime and released on February 21, 2014, after having spent 19 years in jail.1

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of Michigan Law School, between 1989 and the date of this posting, there have been 1,718 exonerations of prisoners who were jailed for crimes they did not commit.  The reasons behind this tragic statistic range anywhere from sloppy police work to the deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence.  The sheer number of false imprisonments is a call to action for prosecutorial reform.  Cases like Burgess's (see video) are hardly unique.  Victims of such wrongful incarceration should be fairly compensated for the state's strong-armed forfeiture of their civil rights, and prosecutors responsible for withholding exculpatory evidence must be held to account for their willful misconduct.

Man cleared of murder after 19 years in prison

Sabein C. Burgess, 43, had been convicted of killing his girlfriend


February 21, 2014

After being cleared of a murder for which he spent nearly two decades in prison, Sabein C. Burgess spent some of his first free moments in a dingy carryout next to the city courthouse, holding his baby granddaughter with his family and lawyers swarming around.

"There were a lot of times I didn't think I was going to get out," Burgess said.

But the evidence — gathered over years — had reached a tipping point. Shortly after Burgess' conviction, another man confessed to carrying out the killing together with a notorious hit-man. Then two years ago, the victim's son, who witnessed the killing as a boy, came forward to say Burgess didn't do it. And the forensic evidence has been challenged as shaky.

After the legal maneuvering came the courtroom paperwork and scheduling headaches; then Burgess spent an extra week in jail after last week's snowstorm shut down Baltimore City Circuit Court.

In the carryout Friday, he signed papers outlining the conditions of his release. Earlier that day, Judge Charles J. Peters ordered a new trial for Burgess. Assistant State's Attorney Antonio Gioia, while not saying Burgess was innocent, dropped the charges and agreed his office would not prosecute Burgess again in the killing of his girlfriend Michelle Dyson.

At the trial in 1995, the murder looked like the result of a domestic quarrel. Police found Burgess with Dyson's body in the basement of the Harwood home where they lived, his hands marked with blood and, tests would later show, the residue left behind after a gun is fired.

That forensic evidence proved critical at trial. But in the years since the jury returned its guilty verdict, Burgess' attorneys say, the reliability of such gunshot residue evidence has been called into question. Doubts about such evidence have led to new trials in other cases.

Burgess fought in court from the time of his trial, but Latasha McFadden, 42, who has a child with Burgess, said spending time in prison took a toll on him.

"He'd get quiet and sometimes he didn't call for a while. That's when I'd know he's getting depressed," she said.

But with the help of attorneys from the Innocence Project at George Washington University, Burgess battled on.

On the night of Oct. 5, 1994, police arrived at the home in the 2700 block of Barclay St. and found the house's basement door ajar with the smell of gunpowder wafting up the stairs, according to court documents. An officer ordered Burgess, who was downstairs with Dyson, to come out with his hands where the policeman could see them. Burgess was cuffed, and his hands were swabbed for gunshot residue.

In a statement to police, he denied killing Dyson and was not charged until the residue test came back positive. The finding that Burgess had the chemicals — a mix of microscopic lead, barium and antimony particles — on his hands was the key evidence at his trial, his lawyers said.

The prosecutor emphasized it during closing arguments.

"He is the one who fired the handgun, ladies and gentleman, no one else," the assistant state's attorney said, according to court documents Burgess filed to get his conviction overturned. The jury was convinced of Burgess' guilt, and a judge upheld the conviction, pointing to the strength of the forensic evidence.

Gerald Goldstein, the now-retired homicide detective who investigated the case, said he would never have charged Burgess if he didn't think he was guilty. He recalled inconsistencies in Burgess' story about where he was during the killing, and doubted the residue alone established his guilt for the jury.

"A Baltimore City jury would not convict somebody based on just that," Goldstein said.

Burgess said police believed he fit the bill of a murderer — young, black and involved in drugs. He was on probation at the time for convictions on drug and assault with attempt-to-murder charges.

"I was the easiest way to close the case," Burgess said.

But cracks soon began to appear in the case. In the early part of the last decade, contamination problems at the Baltimore police lab called into question the validity of gunshot residue evidence. And in 2005, a national symposium of scientists convened by the FBI questioned such evidence, saying it would be difficult to conclude whether someone with the chemicals on their hands had fired a gun or had merely been standing near the shooter.

Burgess' attorneys argued as part of his appeal that he could have gotten the chemicals on his hands from cradling Dyson as she died in the cramped basement.

Meanwhile, a prisoner named Charles Dorsey, 40, a childhood acquaintance of Burgess, wrote to Burgess' mother in 1998, saying he was behind Dyson's murder.

"He's doing time for something I done," Dorsey wrote, according to court filings.

Dorsey was serving 45 years for attempted murder and armed robbery, and detectives who went to interview him had discounted his confession, concluding he had nothing to lose.

Copyright 2014, The Baltimore Sun

From: Ian Duncan, "Man cleared of murder after 19 years in prison; Sabein C. Burgess, 43, had been convicted of killing his girlfriend," The Baltimore Sun, February 21, 2014, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2014-02-21/news/bs-md-ci-murder-conviction-challenge-20140221_1_burgess-new-trial-residue, accessed 11/13/2015.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Video adapted from NBC Nightly News, KTAL TV-6, Shreveport, La., August 15, 2015.  Reproduced in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Man freed in girlfriend's murder after serving 19 years in prison sues Baltimore police


March 24, 2015

A Baltimore man freed after spending 19 years in prison in his girlfriend's killing is now suing the city's police department and the detectives who worked his case, accusing them of fabricating evidence and withholding proof of his innocence.

Sabein Burgess, 44, filed the civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department in federal court on Monday. It seeks unspecified damages.

A Baltimore police spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.

Burgess was 24 when he was convicted in the October 1994 shooting death of his girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, whose four children were home when she was killed. Burgess was exonerated and freed from prison last year after the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took up his case and presented new evidence, including an affidavit from Dyson's son that a man he saw barge into his mother's home before she was killed wasn't Burgess, and that he had told an officer just that the night of the shooting.

The lawsuit alleges that detectives conspired to fabricate gunshot residue evidence used to convict Burgess, and a different man implicated himself in the crime in 1998.

"Who knows what I could have been had I not been in prison for 20 years," Burgess told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I have been deprived of life, of my family and everything else."

The lawsuit alleges that detectives in Burgess' case knew he was innocent but manipulated the evidence to secure a conviction. The lawsuit says the case is not an isolated event, but rather the result of the department's "policies and practices of pursuing wrongful convictions through reliance on profoundly flawed investigations."

Gerald Goldstein, a retired homicide detective who investigated the Burgess case and is named in the lawsuit, said Tuesday that if one of Dyson's sons talked to any officers at the scene about seeing a man barge into his home, he would have known about it.

"There is absolutely no doubt," about Burgess' guilt, Goldstein said. "Every single thing that he told us, we proved he was lying They must have really had the evidence against him for a Baltimore city jury to convict him."

Goldstein citied inconsistencies with where Burgess said he was during the shooting and other statements.

Burgess is now working as an apprentice for a home improvement contractor and lives in Baltimore with his grown daughter, her two baby girls, and his girlfriend, also the mother of his daughter.

"I'm just trying to put the pieces back together and keep it together," Burgess said. "Every day that I'm free and I wake up to see the sun, I feel blessed. I just smile and keep walking and always look ahead because I can't look back."

Copyright 2015, Mississippi Innocence Project

From: Amanda Lee Meyers, "Man freed in girlfriend's murder after serving 19 years in prison sues Baltimore police," Mississippi Innocence Project, March 24, 2015, http://innocenceproject.olemiss.edu/exonoree-suing-baltimore-police-department-after-nineteen-years-in-prison/, accessed 11/13/2015.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Related Articles
  1. Maurice Possley, "Sabein Burgess," National Registry of Exonerations, March 24, 2015 (update), https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/ pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=4375 (delete space), accessed 12/14/2015.

  2. Tulanelink.com, "Prosecutorial Misconduct; Glenn Ford was freed after nearly 30 years in Louisiana's Angola Penitentiary," 2015.

  3. Tulanelink.com, The state is refusing to fully compensate Glenn Ford for the nearly 30 years he spent at on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit.

  4. Tulanelink.com, The lead prosecutor who wrongfully indicted Glenn Ford for murder acknowledges his wrongdoing.

  5. Tulanelink.com, "Deceptive Prosecutors Ruled Immune from Accountability; John Thompson spent 18 years in prison, including 14 years on death row, for a murder he didn't commit," 2015.

  6. Tulanelink.com, "Charles Sebesta 'Disciplined' for Prosecutorial Misconduct; Anthony Graves spent 18 years in prison, including 12 years on death row, for murders he didn't commit," 2015.

  7. Tulanelink.com,"Dishonest Prosecutor Receives Slap on Hand."

  8. Alex Kozinski, "Preface; Criminal Law 2.0," Ann. Rev. Crim. Proc., 44 Georgetown Law Review, 2015.

  9. Judge Kozinski speaks out on the origins and consequences of prosecutorial misconduct and the critical need for reform.

  10. "Qualified Immunity: Striking the Balance for Prosecutor Accountability," Center for Prosecutor Integrity, 2014.














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