On the night of October 5, 1994, 25-year-old Michelle Dyson was shot to death in the basement of her home in Baltimore, Maryland.
Dyson was discovered by 24-year-old Sabein Burgess, who lived in the home with Dyson and her children from a prior relationship. Burgess told police he had left the home to return some videocassettes and fill up his car with gasoline, but returned when he realized he had forgotten one of the videos. He said he smelled smoke when he entered the home and so he ran to a neighbor’s and asked the neighbor to notify police. When he returned, he saw the basement door was ajar, so he went downstairs where he found Dyson on the floor. She had been shot in the chest and in the head.
When police arrived, they found Burgess cradling Dyson in his arms.
When asked what happened, Burgess said, “I can’t tell you nothing.” He allowed his hands to be swabbed for gunshot residue and said, “I know that it won’t come back that I fired a gun. If that test is accurate, it will say that I didn’t fire a gun.”
On November 9, 1994, Burgess was arrested and charged with first-degree murder based on testing that showed he had gunshot residue on his hands. There was no residue on his clothing and no gun was ever found.
He went on trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court in June 1995. A Baltimore police laboratory technician testified that the residue on Burgess’s hands showed that he had fired a weapon. “Either the person fired the gun or his hand was right close to the gun,” the technician testified. The technician dismissed defense suggestions that the residue on Burgess’s hands had transferred from Dyson as he cradled her.
The prosecution contended that there were no witnesses and that Dyson’s children had slept through the shooting.
The defense did not call any witnesses. The prosecution pointed out some inconsistencies in Burgess’s statements—the gas tank in the car did not appear to have been filled, the videotapes were not found. The neighbor that Burgess asked to call police because he smelled smoke said Burgess told her that Dyson had been shot, but police said that Burgess told them he did not know Dyson had been shot until he returned to the house and discovered her in the basement.
On June 13, 1995, after a two-day trial, Burgess was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In October 1998, after Burgess’s conviction had been upheld on appeal, Charles Dorsey, who was serving a 45-year prison term for an attempted murder and armed robbery committed after Dyson was murdered, wrote a letter to Burgess’s mother confessing that he had killed Dyson. A few months later, Dorsey wrote a letter to Burgess’s trial lawyer admitting his guilt. When the lawyer did not immediately reply, Dorsey wrote two more letters to the lawyer, reiterating his guilt and denying Burgess was involved. Dorsey said he would confess to the prosecution and would testify in court.
Detectives interviewed Dorsey and although he told them the caliber of the murder weapon and the location of Dyson’s wounds, the detectives contended that Dorsey lacked details that the killer should have known. Those details were not included in their report.
In 2001, a post-conviction motion seeking a new trial for Burgess was filed, claiming that Burgess’s trial lawyer had provided an inadequate defense by failing to retain a gunshot residue expert to testify for the defense. At a hearing, Dorsey was allowed to testify that he had written letters, but the judge forbade him from testifying about his confession.
The judge refused to grant a new trial.
In 2011, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project at the Georgetown University Law School began re-investigating the case. Documents in the case were disclosed by the prosecution that had not been turned over to Burgess’s trial lawyer, including police notes of an interview with Dyson’s then six-year-old son, Brian. The notes suggested that Brian, contrary to the prosecution’s claim that he was asleep, might have seen something and heard someone order Dyson to go to the basement.
In 2012, Brian wrote a letter to Burgess (with whom he had not had contact since the murder) saying that he knew Burgess was innocent. Brian signed an affidavit saying that he had seen two men come into the house and order his mother into the basement and neither of them was Burgess. According to Brian, Burgess arrived after the shots were fired and after the men fled.
Also in 2012, Dorsey signed a sworn affidavit saying he had committed the crime with another man named Howard Rice. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project investigated and determined that Rice, who was deceased, had been suspected of committing as many as seven other murders between March 1994 and March 1996 in Baltimore. Police reports in one of the unsolved murders revealed that detectives also considered Rice a person of interest in the Dyson murder.
Meanwhile, in the years after Burgess was convicted, doubts were raised about gunshot residue suggesting that relying on its presence to prove someone fired a gun was highly dubious. By 2006, the FBI had stopped analyzing gunshot residue and recommended that all gunshot residue reports state that the presence of the residue on a person’s hand is consistent with that person firing a gun, or having been in the vicinity of a gun when it was fired or having handled an item with residue on it.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project contacted John Kilty, who headed the FBI’s gunshot residue analysis unit from 1975 until 1987. Kilty reviewed the gunshot residue evidence in the Burgess case. Kilty disagreed with the prosecution's conclusion that the presence of the gunshot residue meant that Burgess had fired the gun that killed Dyson and said there were other plausible reasons for the presence of the residue on Burgess.
The new evidence was provided to the prosecution, which re-investigated the case. In December 2013, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence on behalf of Burgess.
On February 21, 2014, the prosecution agreed with the defense that the conviction should be vacated, dismissed the charge and Burgess was released. In March 2015, Burgess filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore police department.
– Maurice Possley