Sabein Burgess

[Above:  Sabein Burgess hugs Susan Friedman one of his lawyers. William Johnson (right), his older brother, tries to hold back tears.]

After being cleared of murder, Sabein C. Burgess, still spent a week of his new freedom in a jail as the result of an unrelenting snowstorm that shut down Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“There were a lot of times I didn’t think I was going to get out,” Burgess said about the almost 20 years he spent in prison.

But the evidence gathered over the years had reached an almost irrefutable status.  Shortly after Burgess’ conviction, another man confessed to carrying out the killing with a known hit man.  Then, in 2012, the victim’s son, who witnessed the murder, came forward and said Burgess was innocent.  The forensic evidence was also extremely shaky.

Friday, Judge Charles Peters ordered that Burgess get a new trial.  Assistant State Attorney Antonio Gioia dropped the charges that same day and agreed not to prosecute Burgess again in the murder of his girlfriend Michelle Dyson.  The prosecution did not concede that Burgess was innocent.

In 1995, the murder was portrayed as a domestic fight gone wrong.  Police found Burgess in the basement of their home with Dyson’s body, his hands had blood on them, and tests showed that he had gunshot residue on them as well.  The GSR tests proved critical to the trial.  But in the years since the jury found Burgess guilty, the reliability of the test was questioned.  Doubts about the evidence has led to new trials in multiple other cases as well.

Burgess fought in court from his conviction until his release.  With the help of the Innocence Project at George Washington University, he was able to continue fighting after having bouts of depression.  Latasha McFadden, who has a child with Burgess, said that spending time in prison took a toll on him,

“He’d get quiet and sometimes…didn’t call…That’s when I’d know he’s getting depressed.”

On the night of October 5, 1994, police arrived at the Barclay Street home and found the basement door ajar with a smell of gunpowder.  An officer ordered Burgess to come out with his hands up.  Burgess was handcuffed and his hands were swabbed.  He denied killing Dyson and was not charged until the test came back positive.  The finding was that Burgess had a mix of lead, barium, and antimony particles on his hands.  The prosecutor emphasized the evidence during closing arguments, “He is the one who fired the handgun, ladies and gentleman, no one else.”

The jury was convinced by the prosecution and the trial judge upheld the conviction on direct appeal because of the “strength” of the forensic evidence.  Gerald Goldenstein, the now-retired investigator of the case, said he recalled inconsistencies in Burgess’ statements and doubted that the forensics of the case established his guilt.

“A Baltimore City jury would not convict somebody based on just that,” Goldenstein said.

Burgess said that police suspected him because he fit the bill, he was young, black, and involved with drugs.  He was on probation for drugs and assault with attempt to murder charges at the time.

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

In the early part of the last 10 years, contamination problems at the Baltimore police lab called into question the validity of evidence.  In 2005, a national symposium of scientists convened by the FBI questioned such evidence saying it would be difficult to differentiate between whether someone who has chemicals on their hands fired the gun or merely was near it.  Burgess’ attorneys used this new conclusion as part of their appeal.  They said he got the chemicals and the blood on his hands from cradling Dyson in the basement.  The victim of a gunshot often gets residue on them because they were near the gun.

While investigating Burgess’ case, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project also discovered that the police investigated another suspect after Burgess was convicted.  In 1998, Charles Dorsey, a childhood acquaintance of Burgess, wrote Burgess’ mother from prison and said he killed Dyson.

“He’s doing time for something I done,” Dorsey wrote.

Dorsey was serving 45 years for attempted murder and armed robbery, but detectives dismissed the confession, concluding Dorsey had nothing to lose.  Dorsey who is eligible for parole starting this year, never recanted.  In 2012, his confession was corroborated by Dyson’s son.  Brian Rainey, now 25, came forward to say that he was not asleep as was maintained by prosecutors.  He was in fact awake when his mother was murdered and saw what happened.  He said Burgess did not kill his mother.  The prosecutor of Burgess’ case, said he would explore charges against Dorsey.

Dorsey, 6 months out of prison at the time of the murder, said that Howard Rice approached him on October 5, 1994.  Rice, a major crime figure in the mid-90s, was eventually killed.  Police believe that he was behind at least 7 murders before his death and the prosecution called him a “notorious sociopath”.

Dorsey said the pair went to rob Dyson’s home, thinking it was a drug dealer’s stash house.  When they got there, Dyson let Rice in.  Rainey, who was 6 at the time, said he watched two men come in from the landing.  Dorsey said that Rice gave him a gun and told him to take Dyson to the basement. Rice searched the house, but didn’t find anything, so he joined them in the basement.  Angry over not finding anything, he took the gun and shot Dyson.  He handed the gun to Dorsey and told him to finish the job.  Rainey said he heard gunshots and pretended to be asleep.  He listened as two men left the house.  Dorsey said that he went to hang out with others on a nearby corner,

“I saw Sabein Burgess driving his Nissan Pathfinder,” Dorsey wrote, describing the moments before the police found Burgess with Dyson’s body, “I don’t know where Burgess was going, but I heard sirens shortly after that.”

The judge ordered that Burgess get a new trial based largely upon the fact that the gunshot residue test done on him at the time would not meet today’s evidentiary standards.

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