By Eleanor Mueller
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Sabein Burgess wasted no time trying to prove his innocence.
Convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in June 1995, the then-24-year-old waited just 10 days after his trial before filing a motion for a new one.
The act was his first step in a battle that would last 19 years, during which the Baltimore resident would spend the prime of his life in a jail cell.
“From the day I was locked up, I was saying I was innocent,” Burgess, now 46, said. “From the night I spent in homicide to the day I came home (from prison).”
Baltimore City prosecutors had charged Burgess with the murder of his then-girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, whom he discovered fatally shot in the basement of her Baltimore home that fall. Evidence against him included gunpowder residue discovered on his hands; none was ever found on his body or clothes, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
“It was a heart-wrenching experience,” Burgess, who was holding Dyson’s body when police arrived, said. “Nobody can really understand what it’s like to be innocent and still go about your daily activities as if you were guilty.”
Just three years after Burgess’s conviction, a man named Charles Dorsey wrote multiple letters confessing to the murder, according to The National Registry of Exonerations, a law school project that tracks every known exoneration since 1989. He was then serving a 45-year prison term on different charges brought after Dyson’s death.
However, it took 16 years — spanning multiple motions for new trials, the uncovering of new evidence, and the involvement of innocence advocates — before the prosecution agreed to vacate Burgess’s conviction.
“To do something about him (Dorsey), they would’ve had to help me, and they didn’t want to help me,” Burgess said. “It wasn’t in their best interest to admit they were wrong and I was right.
“You look back on all those years, and all the stuff they had,” Burgess told Capital News Service. “People keep asking me all the time why they didn’t do something — if I knew that, I’d be rich.”
In Maryland, prosecutors and judges make it unusually difficult to overturn wrongful convictions, lawmakers and advocates say. Though the state boasts a Democratic electorate and a progressive legislature, its judicial and prosecutorial climate is surprisingly unconducive to securing exonerations for the wrongfully convicted; meaning cases take far longer than expected.
“It is, for some reason, incredibly hard in Maryland to get prosecutors or judges to admit that people who are innocent get convicted,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, an advocacy group that helped Burgess become exonerated. “It’s surprising, because it’s Maryland — the legislature has been great, it’s a progressive state — but there’s not much enthusiasm in other areas of the system.
“If we were talking about Alabama, this wouldn’t be a story. But we’re not.”
To the layman, Maryland may appear poised to be a nationwide leader in exonerations.
Some of the most high-profile cases took place here; Marylander Kirk Bloodsworth became the first American to be spared the death penalty by DNA evidence in 1993.
Most critically, its Democrat-controlled legislature is one of the most progressive in the country on the topic.
Since 2008, some members of the Maryland General Assembly have worked closely with innocence advocates to push through some of the most exoneration-friendly laws in the nation, among them progressive policies concerning eyewitness identification, false confessions, and post-conviction DNA testing.
In 2009, lawmakers enacted a statute that permits a convicted person to file a petition for a “writ of actual innocence” based upon a claim of newly discovered evidence — a relatively low bar, experts say.
However, these efforts have been stunted by state prosecutors and judges who appear unwilling to entertain the possibility of actual innocence, advocates and lawmakers say.
“The intent of the legislature has been to provide a mechanism for people who have been wrongfully convicted to have their cases heard and heard in an expeditious manner, but we don’t see that happening,” said Michele Nethercott, director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic. “The legislative branch has been quite responsive; however, other players in the criminal justice system have not been.”
This contrast is unique to Maryland, said Rebecca Brown, policy director for New York-based advocacy group Innocence Project.
“It’s extremely rare that all of the innocence-related activity is centered in the legislature,” Brown said. “Usually it’s a cumulative effort.”
In illustration, Armbrust points to neighboring Washington, D.C., where its Superior Court initiated forming a committee to examine wrongful convictions, and nearby Virginia, where she says multiple prosecutors are “more receptive to these cases.”
Utah, Alaska, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey also have courts that have issued rules to streamline the exoneration process, Brown said.
“That hasn’t happened in Maryland,” Armbrust said.
As a result, trying to secure exonerations for those wrongfully convicted takes longer than it does in other states.
The nation has seen 1,913 exonerations since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Maryland has seen 24, and neighboring states Virginia and Pennsylvania have seen 43 and 59, respectively, in that time.
Those wrongfully convicted in Maryland have spent an average of 11.3 years locked up; almost three years longer than the national average of 8.8 years, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
“We see enormous delays,” Nethercott said.
State judges are hesitant to grant motions for new trials. And, when they do, they delay the docketing of the cases, Nethercott said.
Moreover, state prosecutors and judges frequently oppose the release — let alone the testing — of new evidence, one of the ways they can make it extremely difficult for defense attorneys to secure objects that may help prove their client’s innocence, Nethercott said.
Malcolm Bryant, whose 1999 murder conviction was vacated in May, was also prosecuted in Baltimore City. It took him and his legal team eight years — and multiple trials — to obtain the release of the DNA evidence that proved him innocent.
“When the person is in the category of being wrongfully convicted, to put so many additional obstacles in their path is just immoral and counterproductive,” state Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said.
“Often the response is not only surprising,” Nethercott said. “The level of outright hostility we often encounter in connection with these claims — that’s a little discouraging.”
One possible reason prosecutors and judges could be so opposed is that vacating a conviction contradicts everything they work toward.
“It’s hard for them to think, ‘I did something that resulted in someone getting convicted,’” Nethercott said. “They view themselves as advocating on behalf of those victimized…the idea that they may have participated in bringing about an injustice is at odds with their self-concept.”
Another potential explanation is that entertaining the idea of wrongful convictions would mean having to evaluate the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
“There’s a fear that if you admit innocent people are in jail, you open up the system to too many questions,” Armbrust said.
Rather, prosecutors in Maryland “tend to like the status quo,” said Kelley.
“They do what they think will keep everybody comfortable,” Kelley said. “It’s sad, but I think that’s impacting (exonerations) significantly.”
The state’s prosecutorial and judicial communities are taking steps to address the issue of wrongful convictions — just at a slower pace than the legislature, said Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the Baltimore City Conviction Integrity Unit.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Lipscomb. “I just think that with most things in the criminal justice field, things tend to be slow-moving.”
However, some prosecutors say the state already has “robust post-conviction procedures,” rendering any further progress on their part unnecessary.
“There are a number of places to make sure that we have it right with the right defendants,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger. “A lot of things have happened. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Shellenberger says the legislature’s progressive stance on exoneration means that action on behalf of the state’s prosecutors is redundant.
“I don’t know how much farther we have to go,” Shellenberger said. “We got a lot of laws.”
Former Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler says securing an exoneration isn’t difficult — there just aren’t any innocent people in jail in Maryland.
“It’s not hard to get someone exonerated,” said Gansler, who held office from 2007 to 2016. “There just aren’t people who aren’t guilty in jail.”
When asked if he thought the state could use more Conviction Review Units like Baltimore City’s, Gansler said Maryland doesn’t need them.
“Every case that should be reviewed is reviewed,” Gansler said. “There’s no question of actual innocence.”
The legislature is “skewed” to favor defendants, meaning that those accused are afforded so many protections that they are rarely — if ever — wrongfully convicted, Gansler said.
“There are just very, very, very innocent few people sitting in jail in Maryland,” Gansler said. “There is nothing a lawyer would rather do than defend an actually innocent person, they are just extremely far and in-between.”
Time for change
Looking back on that October night, Burgess says he bears no regret in remaining at the scene of the crime. If he hadn’t, Dyson’s young children would have discovered her body instead of him, he said.
“I slept well (in jail) every night because I did the right thing, even though it got me in a situation I had to endure,” Burgess said. “Had I left, they would’ve had to have seen what I saw — and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
“But that doesn’t make what happened to me right.”