On May 23, 2023, after serving 24 years in prison, Wayne Burgess walked out of a Giles County courtroom a free man, exonerated after new scientific evidence confirmed it was “not medically possible” that he committed the 1997 murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to life. His release was secured by a defense team including Bass, Berry & Sims attorney Ashleigh Karnell and Jason Gichner and Jessica Van Dyke of the Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP). Ashleigh spent six months working at TIP in 2022 as part of the firm’s Pro Bono Fellows program, spearheading development of the facts and proof supporting the petition that secured Mr. Burgess’s release. She continued to represent Mr. Burgess as part of the team with TIP after the fellowship’s end. Mr. Burgess learned in August 2023 that he will not be retried and the charges against him have been dropped, meaning he will remain a free man.

In April 2023, a Giles County Circuit Court judge vacated and rendered Mr. Burgess’s 1999 conviction void, finding testimony and evidence on March 30 and 31 “presented clear and convincing new scientific evidence that [Burgess] is innocent of the convicted offense.” In addition to a 71-page post-conviction brief that the defense team drafted and more than 1,000 pages of exhibits, Judge Allen credited his ruling to key testimony from the state chief medical examiner for Tennessee, Dr. Adele Lewis, who told the court, “It is not medically possible that Mr. Burgess committed the crime.” This testimony refuted the inaccurate version of events presented in 1999 by former medical examiner, Dr. Charles Harlan, who later had his medical license revoked.

“In a legal system that needs significant improvement to ensure justice for innocent and wrongfully convicted people like Mr. Burgess, we are grateful to Judge Allen and the expert witnesses in this matter for their careful consideration and for the opportunity for Mr. Burgess to return to his life after 24 years of incarceration,” said David Esquivel, Pro Bono Member, “We are proud to have excellent attorneys like Ashleigh who care so deeply and work so diligently.”

The opinion vacating and voiding Mr. Burgess’s conviction is available here. Read more detail about the case here.

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