Jury awards $15 million to Baltimore man exonerated of murder

After more than two decades, Sabein Burgess said, he finally has closure.

Burgess, 47, was charged with murdering his girlfriend in 1994 and sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison. He was freed in 2015 after the state conceded he did not commit the crime.

On Tuesday, a federal jury awarded him $15 million for the wrongful conviction in his suit against the Baltimore Police Department and two police detectives.

“Finally, justice has been served,” Burgess said during a news conference outside the courthouse Tuesday night. “It wasn’t about the money. It was about wanting the truth to come out.”

Burgess was joined by his team of lawyers from Loevy & Loevy, as well as his family and the family of the victim.

Jon Loevy, a Chicago-based civil rights attorney who represented Burgess, said the $15 million verdict ranks among the largest nationwide for a wrongful-conviction case.

“The jury today decided that his constitutional rights had been violated, that evidence had been suppressed from him and the case against him had been fabricated,” Loevy said.

The jury deliberated for less than three hours, he said.

Burgess did not go into the civil trial seeking a specific amount of damages.

“We asked the jury to use their discretion,” Loevy said. “This is fair for what Mr. Burgess suffered.”

Burgess’ defense argued that two now-retired Baltimore homicide detectives — Gerald Goldstein and Steven Lehman — pinned the murder on him without looking into credible alternatives. The detectives’ actions, they argued, led to Burgess’ spending two decades in prison, including a year served in solitary confinement.

In October 1994, officers responded to a house in the Harwood neighborhood of Baltimore where Michelle Dyson was found shot to death. Burgess was there, cradling her body, and police took him into custody. During an hours-long interrogation, Burgess said he wasn’t involved in the killing and that he wanted Dyson’s killer to be caught.

He was released, and then charged a month later after tests showed gunshot residue on his hands.

Loevy said during the civil trial that gunshot residue can be transferred through touching or the air. Loevy said prosecutors offered no evidence beyond the residue during Burgess’ trial.

Lawyers representing the police department and the officers in the case could not be reached Tuesday evening.

During opening arguments, Kelly M. Preteroti, an attorney representing the officers, said her clients had leads pointing to Burgess and no reason to frame him. They “engaged in no intentional bad-faith conduct,” she said.

When the lawsuit was filed, Goldstein said he still had “absolutely no doubt” Burgess was guilty.

Years after Burgess was convicted, an FBI memo surfaced that showed agents investigating a hit man named Howard Bernard Rice had contacted the lead detective in the Dyson case and said she had been killed over a botched drug package delivery by two men and possibly a woman. The name of one suspect was provided, and it was not Burgess.

Loevy accused Goldstein during opening arguments of “keeping that information to himself.”

At the time of Rice’s death in 1999, police said he was a suspect in as many as seven killings. Then years later, a man named Charles Dorsey wrote a letter to Burgess’ mother and attorney, saying he and Rice had killed Dyson in a home invasion. Dorsey knew Burgess during childhood and was serving 45 years for attempted murder.

Lehmann, the other detective, was accused of taking a call from Dyson’s father, who told him that Dyson had been scared in the days leading up to her death and that someone nicknamed “Little Man” had killed her. Loevy argued that “Little Man” was a nickname for Rice, and said detectives failed to consider the tip.

Burgess also contends police were told at the time of the killing that Dyson’s 6-year-old son was home when she was killed and said he did not see Burgess.

Lehmann was dismissed from the case, and no judgment was entered against him, said Preteroti, the officers’ attorney.

Preteroti said during opening arguments that police thoroughly investigated the case at the time and were unable to match Rice to the nickname “Little Man.” She said the FBI memo described the suspects as operating a white Nissan Pathfinder, the same type of car Burgess drove.

Dyson’s daughter, 32-year-old Lashanda Folkes, hugged Burgess Tuesday night and stood with him during the press conference.

She said she too got closure from the jury’s decision.

“I’ve been going all these years without knowing anything,” she said. “I feel sorry for him, being locked up all those years.”

Latasha McFadden, Burgess’ fiancee, said the verdict has been a long time coming.

“No money can take the place of what we’ve been through,” she said.

These kinds of trials are unusual in Maryland. Plaintiffs must overcome immunity that police and prosecutors have from lawsuits, and lawyers typically are reluctant to take these cases, said Michele Nethercott, director of the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project.

Loevy & Loevy has a long record of success in such cases. The firm has won a third of the top wrongful-conviction jury verdicts in the nation, according to their website.

“It’s nice to see justice,” Loevy said. “Sabein is a great guy and he waited a long time for the truth to come out. It’s a good feeling when it works.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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