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.
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.
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.
In 2011, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project 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.
MAIP worked with 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.
Flawed forensic science testimony has been a factor in more than half of the DNA exonerations nationwide and more than 20 percent of all exonerations nationwide. This case proves once again the need for rigorous standards for the admission of scientific testimony.