A Baltimore judge vacated the manslaughter conviction of a man for the killing of an 86-year-old while fleeing police eight years ago, the result of new evidence uncovered through a corruption investigation into a Baltimore police gun unit.
For 47-year-old Umar Burley, the move finally cleared his record of charges for which he wrongly spent more than seven years in prison. Corrupt police officers planted drugs on him and falsified charges against him, federal prosecutors have said.
The family of Elbert Davis, who was killed in the crash during the chase, expressed frustration that the case was reopening old wounds and said Burley should not be absolved of culpability.
"Justice requires a certain outcome in this case," Circuit Court Judge Shannon Avery told them.
The case seemed to have been resolved long ago. In April 2010, police said, they were watching Burley conduct a drug transaction when they moved in to arrest him and he drove off at a high speed. As he fled, his vehicle struck another, killing Davis and injuring his wife.
Burley pleaded guilty in 2011 to manslaughter in state court, as well as federal drug charges, and was given a 15-year total prison sentence.
Last year, Burley was freed from prison when federal prosecutors investigating the Gun Trace Task Force developed information that drugs had been planted in Burley's vehicle after the stop.
He has remained on probation related to the manslaughter conviction, as his attorneys worked with city prosecutors on a resolution.
"Up until today," Burley said Monday on the courthouse steps, "I really didn't feel like I was free."
Burley says he fled because the officers who arrested him drove at his car, then emerged wearing masks and with their guns drawn. He said he thought he was being robbed.
Federal prosecutors have not corroborated that account, but former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins was criminally charged with planting the drugs on Burley. Jenkins pleaded guilty in January to his role in Burley's wrongful conviction — as well as to allegations that he robbed people of money and drugs using his badge for years. Jenkins also admitted he conspired with a bail bondsman to re-sell drugs.
Jenkins' attorney has maintained that another officer planted the drugs on Burley and Jenkins "knowingly wrote a false report."
Prosecutors also said that Det. Sean Suiter, who was working with Jenkins at the time, was duped into finding heroin that was planted in Burley's car.
Suiter was killed one day before he was to have testified before a federal grand jury investigating the allegations. Police have said they do not have any information to suggest the allegations were related to Suiter's death, which remains unsolved despite a $215,000 reward. Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said he is moving closer to appointing an independent panel to review Suiter's death.
After months of discussions, city prosecutors agreed to file a joint motion with Burley's defense attorneys to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea. When Avery granted the motion, prosecutors dropped the charges.
Tony Gioia, chief general counsel for the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, told Avery that he and State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby met with Davis' family and had a discussion that was "a painful one at times."
Judson Lipowitz, an attorney who represents Davis' family, said they were "distraught and disappointed," and felt they were presented with a decision that had been made and "were not given any opportunity to change her decision."
Delores Davis, one of Elbert Davis' 10 children, said Burley did not have a license and should not have been driving a vehicle at all when the crash occurred. She said her father "got no justice at all."
"The Davis family are the ultimate victims," said Lipowitz, the attorney.
He noted Burley hadn't contested the facts of the case when the survivors sued him several years ago, winning a $1 million judgment that has grown to $2 million with interest since then.
After the hearing, Burley spoke briefly in the hallway with one of Davis' sons, Albert Cain, and said he told him he shared their pain.
"I'm hoping I can move on from this and finally put this behind me," Burley told reporters outside the courthouse. "I know I'll never be the same again."
His attorney, Steve Silverman, said he is planning a civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department and the officers involved in Burley's arrest, one of whom remains on the police force.
Lipowitz also said the Davis family has filed a claim against the city. The family "expects the police to take responsibility, to own up for what happened and to be held accountable," he said.