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The Exoneration of Sabein Burgess: Pro Bono Lawyers Overcome Junk Science and Help to Free an Innocent Man

On May 28, we cosponsored (along with the Constitution Project, the Innocence Project, and Steptoe and Johnson) a panel on the recent exoneration of Sabein Burgess. Burgess spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Aleta Spraguehas this report on the panel.

At age 24, Sabein Burgess was convicted of murdering his girlfriend at their Baltimore home. His defense attorney called no witnesses during the two-day trial. Burgess was sentenced to life in prison; he remained incarcerated until this year –despite the emergence of contradictory eyewitness testimony and another man’s confession. Eventually, a team of attorneys demonstrated that he was convicted based on faulty forensic evidence. On February 21, 2014, Burgess, now 43, was finally able to return home.

The panel featured attorneys from both Steptoe and Johnson and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP), which worked together on behalf of Burgess. The panelists explained how the justice system failed Burgess by providing an ineffective defense attorney and repeatedly disregarding evidence of his innocence after his conviction – particularly the confession of Charles Dorsey, who today is considered the primary suspect.

The conviction of Burgess rested almost entirely on questionable gunshot residue evidence – the validity of which wasformally reassessed by the FBI in 2005. Gunshot residue evidence has a high risk of contamination; today, the FBI has stopped using this type of evidence.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti of the Innocence Project explained how gunshot residue evidence and other forensic science tools were created by law enforcement, are subject to confirmation bias, and generally lack scientific rigor. Indeed, according to MAIP, “flawed forensic science testimony has been a factor in more than half of the DNA exonerations nationwide and in more than 20 percent of all exonerations nationwide.”

Unfortunately, the Burgess story is not unique. A 2012 study found that more than 2000 individuals had been convicted and then exonerated of serious crimes since 1989. Mere weeks before Burgess’ release, another study found that exonerations in the U.S. have reached a record high—though an increasing number are linked to false confessions induced by plea bargains, rather than DNA evidence.

Most disturbingly, a recent analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that nearly one in twenty convictions in capital cases are wrongful – meaning that around 120 of the 3000 individuals on death row are innocent. As one panelist noted, “you have to think twice about the death penalty itself…when a case like this makes its way through the system.”

Attorneys who worked on the case urged audience members to find ways to become involved with exoneration work (or with any pro bono cause that speaks to their passions). To learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and identify opportunities to volunteer, click here.