Wayne Burgess freed after new scientific evidence and expert testimony confirms it was “not medically possible” that he committed the 1997 murder for which he was convicted

Nashville, May 24, 2023 – A team of attorneys from the Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP) and Bass, Berry & Sims has secured the release of a man 24 years into a life sentence. On Tuesday, May 23, Wayne Burgess appeared in Giles County Circuit Court where Judge David L. Allen ruled Burgess was to be immediately released from prison. This follows the judge’s April 13 order vacating Burgess’s 1999 conviction for first-degree felony murder, which new testimony from the state’s medical examiner found was “not medically possible” for him to have committed.

Bass, Berry & Sims attorney Ashleigh Karnell worked with TIP attorneys Jason Gichner – TIP Deputy Director & Senior Legal Counsel – and Jessica Van Dyke – TIP Executive Director and Lead Counsel – to represent Burgess.

Case Details

The case relates to the August 1997 death of a 16-month-old child. Prosecutors in 1999 alleged Burgess struck the child in the abdomen shortly before she was presented to the hospital in critical condition and passed away later that evening, which prosecutors argued was due to trauma that caused an exsanguinating liver laceration. Burgess had maintained his innocence throughout his prison sentence.

The defense team prepared a 71-page post-conviction brief drafted with over 1,000 pages of exhibits. The Burgess defense included testimony from the current chief medical examiner for Tennessee, Dr. Adele Lewis, who told the court, “It is not medically possible that Mr. Burgess committed the crime.” Lewis testified in March 2023 that it was impossible that the child was injured during the short window of time she was alone with Burgess because the blood volume observed at autopsy was not consistent with an injury that happened shortly before presentation at the hospital. Instead, she reasoned it would take hours or days to gather.

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. This new testimony from Dr. Lewis and additional testimony from Dr. Thomas Rauth, national medical director at the Children’s Services Clinical Operations Group for HCA North America, further supported the findings as new scientific evidence of actual innocence.

After reviewing the evidence, Judge Allen vacated and rendered the conviction void, finding testimony and evidence in March 2023 “presented clear and convincing new scientific evidence that [Burgess] is innocent of the convicted offense.”

“The blood volume is objective evidence, never heard by a judge or jury, that Mr. Burgess could not have struck the child shortly before her arrival at the hospital,” Allen wrote in his April 13 opinion.

Burgess was released from prison May 23 after serving 24 years of his original life sentence. The opinion vacating and voiding Burgess’ conviction is available here.

While May 23 was a significant victory for Burgess, the case is not over yet. The State must now decide whether it will retry Burgess for the same offense, following Judge Allen’s ruling that the evidence demonstrates Burgess is innocent.

“In a legal system that needs significant improvement to ensure justice for 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 difficult years,” said David Esquivel, pro bono partner at Bass, Berry & Sims. “We are proud to have excellent attorneys like Ashleigh who care so deeply and work so diligently as part of our Pro Bono Fellows program in important matters like this, as well as inspiring partners like the Tennessee Innocence Project whose work is an honor to support.”

About the Bass, Berry & Sims Pro Bono Fellowship Program and Ashleigh Karnell

Karnell spent six months working full-time at TIP in 2022 as part of the firm’s Pro Bono Fellows program and continued to represent Burgess after the fellowship’s end.

The Bass, Berry & Sims Pro Bono Fellowship Program was established in April 2019 and is one of the cornerstones of the firm’s pro bono initiative, which focuses on matters that strengthen families, empower communities and protect civil rights. The Fellowship allows attorneys to be paid their full compensation and benefits while working full time for up to six months in a pro bono capacity within the community. In addition to Karnell’s Fellowship in Nashville with TIP, to date the firm has sponsored a Fellow in Nashville with the Choosing Justice Initiative, a Fellow in Memphis with TIP, and a Fellow with the Nashville General Sessions Court. Click here for more information.

At Bass, Berry & Sims, Karnell practices in the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Practice Group, where she represents clients in complex business disputes and breach-of-contract disputes. She also counsels in antitrust and trade compliance related to proposed mergers and acquisitions. Karnell was a member of the Nashville Bar Leadership Forum’s class of 2022 and is a member of the American Health Law Association (AHLA). She earned a law degree from Belmont University College of Law (2017) and a B.A. from Indiana University (2014).

About Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP)

TIP was established in February 2019 to focus on representing wrongfully convicted men and women in the state of Tennessee with the goal to help exonerate these innocent individuals. Until the official launch of TIP, Tennessee was only one of two states without an organization investigating and litigating innocence claims in the United States. More information can be found on the TIP website.

About Bass, Berry & Sims PLC

Bass, Berry & Sims is a national law firm with nearly 350 attorneys dedicated to delivering exceptional service to numerous publicly traded companies and Fortune 500 businesses in significant litigation and investigations, complex business transactions, and international regulatory matters. For more than 100 years, our people have served as true partners to clients, working seamlessly across substantive practice disciplines, industries and geographies to deliver highly-effective legal advice and innovative, business-focused solutions. For more information, visit the firm’s website.

Media Coverage