Sabein Burgess spent two decades in prison for a murder the state has conceded he did not commit. Now, he’s taking to court two of the detectives who helped put him away.
Nearly 23 years to the day that he was charged with murdering his girlfriend, the 47-year-old sat in a federal courtroom just feet away from now-retired detectives Gerald Goldstein and Steven Lehmann, accusing them of fingering him for the crime without pursuing credible leads.
Jon Loevy, a civil rights attorney based in Chicago who is representing Burgess, told jurors in opening statements Wednesday morning that the detectives “fabricated the case, withheld evidence, and prosecuted without probable cause.”
Kelly M. Preteroti, an attorney representing the officers, countered that they had no reason to frame Burgess and had leads pointing to him. They “engaged in no intentional bad-faith conduct,” she said. Goldstein said when the lawsuit was filed that he still had “absolutely no doubt” that Burgess was guilty.
Trials for such cases are rare. Michele Nethercott, director of the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project, said plaintiffs have to overcome immunity that police and especially prosecutors have from lawsuits, and lawyers are reluctant to take on the cases. Maryland’s system for obtaining compensation for a wrongful conviction, separate from civil lawsuits, is also complicated, requiring a pardon from the governor or certification from prosecutors that they are actually innocent.
Burgess is not seeking a specific amount of damages. His attorneys say he wants accountability and closure, and that no amount of money can make up for the two decades he spent in prison, including a year that he served in solitary confinement.
Burgess was convicted by a jury in 1995 and sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison. He was freed in 2015 after the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office agreed to his release.
Officers responding to the Harwood house where Michelle Dyson was found shot to death in October 1994 found Burgess cradling her body, and he was taken into custody. Interrogated for hours, Burgess said he wasn’t involved in the killing and wanted to see Dyson’s killer brought to justice.
He was released after being questioned, but a month later was charged in the killing after tests showed gunshot residue was found on his hands. Loevy said gunshot residue can end up on a shooter’s hands but can also be transferred through touching or the air.
“At the trial, they had no evidence” other than the gunshot residue, Loevy said. “The criminal justice system is not perfect, sometimes mistakes are made, and in this case a tragic mistake was made.”
Years later, after the Innocence Project took up Burgess’ case, an FBI memo was uncovered showing 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 by two men and possibly a woman. The name of one suspect was provided, and it was not Burgess.
Loevy accused Goldstein of “keeping that information to himself,” saying it was not included in any evidence provided to Burgess.
Rice was killed in 1999, and at the time of his death, police said he was a suspect in as many as seven killings. Years later, a man named Charles Dorsey, a childhood acquaintance of Burgess’ who was serving 45 years for attempted murder, wrote a letter to Burgess’ mother and attorney, saying he and Rice had killed Dyson in a home invasion.
Lehmann is accused of taking a call from Dyson’s father, in which he was told that Dyson had been scared in the days leading up to her death and that someone nicknamed “Little Man” had killed her. Loevy contended that “Little Man” was a nickname for Rice, and that detectives failed to consider the tip.
Burgess also contends that police were told at the time of the killing that Dyson’s 6-year-old son was home at the time and said he did not see Burgess.
Preteroti, the officers’ attorney, said police “thoroughly” investigated the case at the time. They were unable to find anything matching Rice to the nickname “Little Man,” and said the FBI memo described the suspects operating a white Nissan Pathfinder, the type of vehicle Burgess drove.
Though advances in forensic science have cast doubt on the reliability of gunshot residue tests, she said Burgess had “a lot” of residue on his hands.
She said there’s no evidence that police ever spoke with Dyson’s son, and cited records from the Kennedy Krieger Institute that show he reported that he had overheard Burgess directing Dyson into the basement of the home before she was shot. Loevy said Dyson’s son will testify on Burgess’ behalf.
Lehmann, she said, was a “note-taker in this case, who literally fielded a phone call and has ended up as a defendant.”
Loevy told jurors that Burgess’ innocence in Dyson’s death is no longer in doubt; the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office backed his release. But Preteroti raised questions, saying “there have been inconsistencies in his story for decades.” She also noted that the people who say Rice was responsible for the killing all know Burgess personally.
Earlier this week, city prosecutors announced they had received a $219,000 grant from the Justice Department to work in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project to increase the identification and investigation of wrongful conviction claims. The State’s Attorney’s Office says it is actively investigating 30 potential wrongful convictions and will use the money to bolster its staff.