Aman whose murder conviction was thrown out after another man confessed has sued Baltimore police, saying the nearly two decades he spent in prison robbed him of the best years of his life.
Sabein Burgess, 44, who was incarcerated for 19 years before being freed last year, said he lost untold income, but — more importantly — was forced to miss his daughter’s childhood.
“I was locked up my daughter’s whole life,” Burgess said. “From the time she was born all the way until she was 19. No amount of money can repay that.”
“There’s no amount of money that could compensate Mr. Burgess for the two decades where he was wrongfully convicted,” said attorney Gayle Horn of Chicago.
A police spokeswoman said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Burgess’ lawsuit names several detectives and officers involved in the case as co-defendants. Attempts by The Baltimore Sun to reach co-defendants were unsuccessful.
Retired homicide Detective Gerald Goldstein, who worked on the case and is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit, told the Associated Press that “there is absolutely no doubt” about Burgess’ guilt.
“Every single thing that he told us, we proved he was lying,” Goldstein said. “They must have really had the evidence against him for a Baltimore City jury to convict him.”
Burgess was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1995 in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, in her Harwood home the year before.
Officers at the scene said they smelled gunpowder coming from the basement and called whoever was down there to come up. Burgess emerged with his hands raised.
Police tested his hands and said they had found residue that indicated he had fired a gun.
Dyson’s body was in the basement. Burgess said he had shown up after the killing.
In October 1998, a prisoner named Charles Dorsey wrote to Burgess’ mother saying he was behind the killing.
Dorsey, a childhood acquaintance of Burgess who was serving 45 years for attempted murder and armed robbery, also sent letters to Burgess’ lawyer. He said he and a notorious hit man named Howard Rice fired the shots that killed Dyson during a home invasion and attempted robbery while Burgess was not home.
Rice was dead by the time Dorsey wrote the letter.
Detectives interviewed Dorsey but discounted the confession because it lacked details.
The Baltimore police crime lab came under scrutiny in the 2000s for contamination problems, and scientists began to note that the chemicals from gunshot residue didn’t necessarily indicate someone had fired a gun.
In Burgess’ appeal, attorneys argued that he got the chemicals on him from cradling Dyson.
In April 2010, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project obtained previously undisclosed police notes in Burgess’ case. They included statements that Dyson’s then-6-year-old son, Brian Rainey, had made a statement that cast doubt on Burgess’ involvement.
In 2012, Rainey, who was incarcerated at the time, said he had witnessed the moments before his mother’s killing and corroborated Dorsey’s account. He and Dorsey both wrote affidavits with their accounts of the night Dyson was killed.
The mounting evidence prompted a Baltimore judge to order a new trial in February 2014. The state’s attorney’s office dropped charges against Burgess.
In his lawsuit, Burgess says police “withheld and fabricated evidence.” He says detectives concealed statements Rainey made as a boy, “fabricated gunshot residue” evidence, and tried to pressure Burgess into a confession by saying they would find people to say he fired the shots.
Burgess also says police “fabricated police reports” that indicated Rainey had been asleep when the boy said he witnessed the home invasion.
The gunshot residue found on Burgess was on his palm, he says in the lawsuit, but detectives purposefully said it was found on the “webbing” of Burgess’ hand — consistent with someone firing a gun.
“I think they used me to close the case,” Burgess said.
It’s unclear whether prosecutors will pursue a case against Dorsey. A spokeswoman for the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office said Wednesday she could not determine where the case stood. No attorney for Dorsey could be found.
Burgess said he doesn’t want to see Dorsey prosecuted because he doesn’t “want another man to go through” what he went through.
“Prosecuting Dorsey is not going to bring my girlfriend back, it’s not going to bring my 19 years back,” he said. “That’s not going to make it better. So personally, I just want the people to be held accountable to be made to pay for not doing their job.”