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Civil suit brought by man wrongfully convicted of murder moves forward

Plaintiff alleges Baltimore police fabricated, withheld evidence that he was innocent

A lawsuit can move forward alleging Baltimore police officers withheld and fabricated evidence in a murder case, leading to the conviction and nearly two-decade incarceration of an innocent man, a federal judge has ruled.

Sabein Burgess, who was freed two years ago after spending 19 years in prison for the 1994 murder of his girlfriend, sued the Baltimore Police Department, the city, seven individual police officers and a crime laboratory analyst last year, alleging the department has a policy and practice of conducting flawed investigations, among other claims.

According to Burgess’ complaint, the officers involved in the investigation of Michelle Dyson’s murder knew he was innocent because Dyson’s son told them he saw someone who was not Burgess barge into their house right before his mother was shot and killed. The defendants never disclosed the statement to the prosecutor or to Burgess’ defense attorney, according to the suit, which was filed in U.S District Court in Baltimore last March.

Instead, Burgess alleges, the officers fabricated police reports stating that all four of Dyson’s children were asleep at the time of the shooting. The officers then conspired with a crime technician to fabricate gunshot residue evidence that would implicate Burgess in the crime, the suit states.

After a two-day trial, Burgess was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was vacated in 2014, years after another man confessed to Dyson’s murder, the suit states.

Judge Richard D. Bennett, in an order dated March 1, granted dismissal of claims against the city but allowed the majority of Burgess’ claims against the department and the officers to proceed.

“The plaintiff is looking forward to having the opportunity to conduct discovery and move forward with the case,” said Gayle Horn of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago, an attorney for Burgess in the civil suit.

The defendants had argued the court should dismiss several claims arising under Maryland v. Brady — which requires prosecutors and law enforcement to provide material exculpatory evidence to a defendant — because the does not apply to post-conviction evidence.

Burgess was convicted in 1995, and the exculpatory evidence consisted of a 1996 interview with a witness about another possible suspect in the murder and a 1998 letter in which another man confessed to killing Dyson.

However, Bennett wrote, Burgess argued not that the officers had committed a Brady violation but rather they had violated his post-conviction right to due process by concealing “any possibility of an alternative perpetrator.”

The defendants also argued for the dismissal of alleged Brady violations related to the officers’ interview with Dyson’s son on the night of the murder, in which the son said he had seen someone who was not Burgess enter the house. While they acknowledged the interview amounted to exculpatory evidence, the officers said that by exercising “reasonable diligence,” Burgess’ trial attorney could have also obtained the evidence.

But Burgess said his failure to interview the son was reasonable in light of the circumstances of the case — after their mother’s murder, the children’s grandmother allegedly did not allow them to speak to Burgess or his attorney, he thought a court was unlikely to authorize a subpoena for young, recently orphaned children and, on top of those factors, he had no knowledge of the potential value of the boy’s testimony and therefore no reason to pursue an interview with him.

“When, as in this case, the defendant alleges that he did not know the importance of the unavailable witness due to the alleged misconduct of another party, he cannot reasonably be expected to pursue the witness,” Bennett wrote.

Neil Duke, an attorney for the defendant officers, declined to comment on the ruling. Duke is with Ober|Kaler in Baltimore.

Burgess is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

The case is Sabein Burgess v. Baltimore Police Department et al., 1:15-cv-00834-RDB.