Man cleared of murder after 19 years in prison

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

February 21, 2014|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

After being cleared of a murder for which he spent 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 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 — 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 discounted his confession, concluding he had nothing to lose.

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