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4th Circuit upholds $15M award to Baltimore exoneree

4th Circuit upholds $15M award to Baltimore exoneree

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Sabein Burgess, who spent nearly two decades in prison before being exonerated. (Photo courtesy of Sabein Burgess)
Sabein Burgess, who spent nearly two decades in prison before being exonerated. (Photo courtesy of Sabein Burgess)

A federal appeals court Friday upheld a $15 million verdict to a man who spent nearly 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit because a Baltimore police detective fabricated and withheld evidence.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by the now-retired detective, Gerald Goldstein, that insufficient evidence was introduced at the civil trial to prove fabrication and nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence in the investigation that erroneously led to Sabein Burgess’s 1995 conviction and life sentence.

Burgess was convicted of first-degree murder for the Oct. 5, 1994, shooting death of his girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, in her basement. He was exonerated and released in 2014 after another man confessed.

Burgess filed his successful lawsuit the following year in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

In upholding the verdict, the 4th Circuit said deference is owed to the jurors who heard testimony that Goldstein took illicit steps to implicate Burgess.

The testimony alleged Goldstein fabricated a police report to state that Dyson’s son was asleep at the time of the killing when, in fact, the child told investigators he had seen another man enter the home. Testimony was also introduced at the civil trial that Goldstein did not surrender to Burgess’ defense counsel an FBI letter identifying alternative suspects as part of a drug investigation, the 4th Circuit stated.

During his own testimony, Goldstein challenged those recollections of what had occurred more than 20 years earlier and rejected the allegations of wrongdoing.

“Goldstein’s arguments are compelling (in the civil case),” Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. wrote for the 4th Circuit.

“Indeed, Burgess’ case here appears thin,” Quattlebaum added. “But under our standard of review, it is not our job to weigh the evidence or judge credibility. Here our standard of review compels the conclusion that a reasonable jury could have agreed with Burgess.”

In its published 3-0 decision, the 4th Circuit said Burgess may pursue recovery of the $15 million from the Baltimore Police Department.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett had dismissed the BPD from the lawsuit after the jury rendered its verdict against Goldstein and the city had indicated its willingness to indemnify the detective if the award was upheld on appeal.

In reversing Bennett’s dismissal, the 4th Circuit said the claim against BPD is not moot until the city indemnifies Goldstein and the civil judgment is satisfied.

Baltimore Solicitor James L. “Jim” Shea, whose office represents Goldstein and the BPD, stated via email Friday afternoon that he and his staff are “reviewing the decision” and that the city “does expect to indemnify” Goldstein “as it is required to do.”

Burgess’ attorney, Jon Loevy, did not immediately return telephone and email messages Friday seeking comment on the 4th Circuit’s decision.

Loevy is with the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy.

Quattlebaum was joined in the opinion by Judges Henry F. Floyd and Stephanie D. Thacker.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in Sabein Burgess v. Gerald Goldstein et al., No. 19-1602.

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