Lawsuits Mount Over Wrongful Murder Convictions in Baltimore

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 8, 2015

While the City of Baltimore has been fighting back hard against lawsuits brought by two men who were wrongfully convicted of murder and each spent decades in prison, it now faces a new suit brought in late March by a man who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

The latest case, brought by 44-year-old Sabein Burgess, joins one brought by 54-year-old James Owens in 2011 and another brought by 63-year-old Wendell Griffin in 2013, who both are suing members of Baltimore’s famed 1980s-era squad of detectives whose work inspired David Simon’s celebrated book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” and the popular television series based on it. Griffin spent nearly 31 years in prison, and Owens spent nearly 20 years, until they were released when serious flaws were found in the evidence used to convict them.

The stories of each man’s experience in Baltimore’s criminal-justice system bear similarities to one another. In all three, evidence discovered long after they’d been sentenced cast new and dubious light on the manner in which they were convicted. All three convinced judges they should have new trials, and in Burgess’ and Owens’ case, prosecutors opted to drop the charges rather than try to mount a new trial. Before a new trial was ordered for Griffin, though, he agreed to a plea that reduced his life sentence to time served, allowing his immediate release from prison rather than wait for prosecutors to decide whether to keep trying to prosecute him.

Owens’ case, in particular, shows the lengths to which the city’s lawyers will go in defending taxpayers against liability for claims involving wrongful murder convictions. After Owens’ case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge George Russell in 2012, last fall it was sent back for further litigation after Owens’ attorneys successfully argued before the federal appellate court in Richmond that the dismissal was wrongfully granted. Now, with the case back in active litigation, the city’s lawyers have prepared and submitted a lengthy petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision, and have asked that further proceedings in the case be put on hold until the high court rules.

Owens’ lawyers call the city’s move for Supreme Court review a “Hail Mary petition.” They point out that Owens’ two decades in prison for the 1987 murder of Colleen Williar resulted from a flawed trial. The evidence against him “had been tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct” and relied on “junk science” and “a hunch based on a tip from a pathologically lying witness.” While the city’s lawyers “continue to throw up every roadblock possible to prevent him from being compensated for their misdeeds,” Owens’ lawyers argue that they “should not be permitted to delay justice any longer.”

Wrongful murder convictions in Maryland haven’t always prompted lengthy and expensive litigation. The first person in the U.S. exonerated from death by DNA evidence, Kirk Bloodsworth, in 1993 received a gubernatorial pardon and $300,000 from the state of Maryland. Ten years later, Michael Austin, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, also received a gubernatorial pardon and the state gave him $1.4 million.

In Griffin’s case, lengthy appellate briefs submitted in writing by both sides are to be reviewed by a three-judge panel in Richmond, which will either return an opinion or ask for more arguments at an appellate hearing, according to an order filed in February. A key point of contention in the appeal is whether or not Griffin obtained a “favorable termination” of his life sentence when he consented to a time-served agreement rather than await a new trial. The prospect of a new trial arose after a judge in 2012 agreed with Griffin’s post-conviction claims that detectives had suppressed exculpatory evidence, including the results of photo arrays, contradictory witness statements, and evidence that pointed to others being responsible for the murder of James Wise in 1981.

Given the city’s track record in these wrongful-murder-conviction cases, Burgess can expect a long, dispute-riddled battle. His conviction for the 1994 murder of his girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, was overturned last year, after he proved that Baltimore police “withheld and fabricated evidence” in the case, his lawsuit contends. “The real killer confessed to the crime,” the lawsuit contends, and evidence against Burgess derived from gunshot residue “was exposed as a sham,” while the police also “concealed statements of the victim’s son revealing that he had seen” the killer and it wasn’t Burgess.

Representing Burgess is the Chicago-based civil-rights firm Loevy & Loevy, which is celebrating a just-announced $20 million settlement in an Illinois wrong-conviction lawsuit brought by Juan Rivera, a man who served 20 years in prison for a murder and rape he didn’t commit. Attempts to reach Loevy & Loevy’s Gayle Horn were unsuccessful. Owens and Griffin are both represented by Charles Curlett, who declined to comment. The city’s lawyers have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. 

While Burgess, Owens, and Griffin are pursuing civil suits seeking compensation for the time they were imprisoned for wrongful murder convictions, another Baltimore murder convict—Richard Nicholas, who was found guilty of the 1997 murder of his 2-year-old daughter, Aja—has been seeking federal review of his conviction since 2006, claiming it was wrongfully obtained. On March 30, U.S. District judge Richard Bennett ruled in Nicholas’ favor, overturning state-court judges’ opinions that his conviction should stand. Bennett has ordered a new trial for Nicholas, because statements given to Baltimore police by two witnesses, who both said they heard gunshots at about the time and place Nicholas said Aja had been shot—which bolstered Nicholas’ version of events, while undermining the state’s case—were illegally withheld from his defense.

“There was absolutely no basis for the state courts to conclude that the suppressed statements conflicted with [Nicholas’] theory of the case,” Bennett wrote in his opinion, adding that “it is clear that no fair-minded jurist could have concluded that the suppressed statements were not material” to the case. “In sum,” Bennett concluded, because “the State put on a circumstantial case in which much of their evidence was disputed,” and because the suppressed witness statements touched “on the critical point of the State’s theory—the time of Aja’s shooting,” they were “likely to have an effect on the outcome” of the trial. The result, he wrote, was “a verdict unworthy of any confidence.”

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