Students’ Work Helps Free an Innocent Man

February 27, 2014 —

The work of eight former students in the Wrongful Convictions practicum taught by Professor Wallace Mlyniec (L’70) and Adjunct Professor Shawn Armbrust (L’04) has led to the exoneration of a Maryland man. Sabein Burgess, who served nearly 20 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit, was freed February 21.

Vanessa Doyle (L’11), Nia Ervin (L’12), Casey Shevin (L’12), Rita Maxwell (LL.M.’11), Ji-In Lee (L’11), Alex Berg (L’11) and Danielle Schiffman (L’11) worked on the case during the 2009-11 academic years.

That the case was reexamined at all was largely due to Michael Albanese (L’08), who had already taken Wrongful Convictions when he began volunteering at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project doing intake screening during his third year of law school. He spotted Burgess’s letter among the many that MAIP receives and brought it to the attention of Armbrust, MAIP’s executive director who has co-taught the Georgetown Law class with Mlyniec since 2007.

“He came into my office and said, ‘This one’s really good; you should have students investigate this,’” Armbrust recalls. “I took a look at it and he was right.”

Burgess had been convicted of the 1994 murder of his girlfriend based solely on police testimony regarding gunshot residue. Burgess maintained that he had gotten the residue on his hands when he tried to help the victim. In addition, by the time Burgess wrote to MAIP, another man had confessed to the crime. 

“When the conviction was based on such thin evidence … that made it a case that we wanted to explore further,” Armbrust said.

Mlyniec and Armbrust handed the case to their practicum students. Doyle was the first student to begin investigating the weakness of the gun shot residue (GSR) testimony. This has since been discontinued as a method of crime detection, Mlyniec says, because it is impossible to tell whether the residue is due to the firing of a weapon or whether it has been transferred through some other means.

Meanwhile, Berg and LL.M. student Maxwell, a former homicide prosecutor, interviewed the confessed perpetrator in jail. 

“We’ll do the investigation, and if we think the case has merit, we send it back to MAIP so that more experienced and better resourced lawyers can move it forward,” Mlyniec explained. 

And that’s what happened. The case was returned to MAIP and the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, which filed a petition for actual innocence in Baltimore City Circuit Court in December. Burgess was granted a new trial by the court, but the state’s attorney decided not to prosecute the charges. 

It was the second win for the Wrongful Convictions class; Georgetown Law students also contributed to the freeing of Michael Hash in Virginia in 2012.