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Exonerated Prisoner Awarded $15 Million for Misconduct by Baltimore Police

by Derek Gilna

On October 5, 1994, Sabein Burgess’ life changed forever when his girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, was brutally murdered at her home in Baltimore, Maryland. Burgess discovered his girlfriend’s body, called for help and then returned to cradle Dyson’s head in his hands until police officers arrived. As horrible as that was, his nightmare was just beginning.

When officers arrived at the crime scene they took Burgess, who professed his innocence, into custody. The police allegedly said they would find people to say he had killed his girlfriend, and as a result of their misconduct he was prosecuted, convicted, sentenced to life and spent 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Thanks to the assistance of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, however, Burgess was able to prove his innocence; he was released in 2014. He then filed suit in federal court, alleging numerous violations of his civil rights by both police officers and city officials, including detectives Gerald Goldstein and Steven Lehmann.

Following a contentious jury trial, Burgess, now 47, was awarded $15 million on November 21, 2017.

At the time of his arrest, according to his lawsuit, “a crime scene technician ... swabbed both of Mr. Burgess’ hands.” The arresting officers said he was going away for murder even though they knew he was innocent, concealing the fact that Dyson’s young son had said Burgess was not the killer.

Nonetheless, the complaint alleged, “Despite the obvious exculpatory value of this statement, it was never disclosed to the prosecutor or to Plaintiff or his criminal defense lawyer.... Rather than search for the real killer, the Defendants instead fabricated gunshot residue (“GSR”) evidence falsely inculpating Plaintiff in the crime.” Detectives also failed to pursue leads related to other suspects.

“Years after his conviction, however, the real killer confessed to the crime and the fabricated GSR evidence was exposed as a sham,” the complaint continued. It was also revealed that Baltimore police officers had testified falsely, stating “that any positive GSR finding from Plaintiff’s hands could not have been the result of the transfer of GSR particles from Ms. Dyson to Plaintiff when Plaintiff was cradling her in his hands after she was shot. That statement was not only patently false, but also had no legitimate basis in science....”

In April 2010, with help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Baltimore police authorities finally turned over “handwritten police notes that had never been disclosed to anyone before; included in those notes was information that Ms. Dyson’s son provided to the Defendants about his mother’s killing. Later, Ms. Dyson’s son confirmed via letter and affidavit that he knew that Plaintiff was innocent because he saw the offender and it was not Plaintiff.”

Burgess’ case is one of many stemming from what criminal justice advocates have argued is an epidemic of misconduct by Baltimore police officers.

Following the $15 million jury award, the district court denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and motion for a new trial or to alter or amend the judgment on March 9, 2018. The defendants have since filed a notice of appeal, which remains pending.

“Finally, justice has been served,” Burgess said after the trial and verdict. “It wasn’t about the money. It was about wanting the truth to come out.” He was represented by the Chicago law firm of Loevy & Loevy. See: Burgess v. Baltimore Police Department, U.S.D.C. (D. MD), Case No. 1:15-cv-00834-RDB. 

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Related legal case

Burgess v. Baltimore Police Department