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ACLU of Nevada sues ex-prison chaplain accused of sexual assault

Updated August 2, 2022 - 5:23 pm

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a convicted killer who claims a Department of Corrections chaplain sexually assaulted her at a prison in the Las Vegas area.

The chaplain, 55-year-old Donald Burse, was arrested May 24 and booked into the Clark County Detention Center. The Nevada attorney general’s office has charged him with two felony counts of sexual abuse of a prisoner by a prison employee and a gross misdemeanor count of unauthorized contact with a prisoner by a prison employee.

According to the lawsuit and Burse’s arrest report, the woman accused Burse of sexually assaulting her after he offered to get her items in exchange for sex acts.

The lawsuit was filed on Friday. Attempts to reach Burse on Tuesday were not successful.

ACLU attorney Christopher Peterson, who wrote the lawsuit with attorneys Sadmira Ramic and Sophia Romero, said Tuesday that the lack of supervision of employees puts prisoners at risk.

“What we’re aiming for here is to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future, and to make sure that there’s sufficient protections in place for people who are incarcerated,” Peterson said.

Peterson said that under federal law, prisoners cannot consent to sex with a prison employee if there is a “quid pro quo” aspect to the relationship. But sexual abuse can be prevented or better addressed if there is more oversight of employees, he said.

“The reality is, people who are incarcerated in prison facilities are vulnerable to predatory behavior,” Peterson said.

Burse began frequenting the plaintiff’s dorm at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center around June or July of 2020, according to the lawsuit. The woman was identified in the document as Dawnyell Flynn, who was sentenced in 2019 to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years for a fatal 2012 shooting, court records show.

“What began as casual conversation with Mr. Burse regarding Ms. Flynn’s religion, quickly turned to inappropriate comments about Ms. Flynn’s body and sexual acts that he would like to perform on Ms. Flynn,” the complaint states.

In August 2020, Burse called Flynn into his office in the prison chapel, where Flynn thought he was going to give her a Bible, according to the lawsuit.

In the office, Burse said he could “obtain certain items for Ms. Flynn” in exchange for sex acts. Burse also sexually assaulted Flynn inside the office, according to the complaint.

After the first assault, Burse again called Flynn into his office, when Flynn thought Burse “had the items he had promised her.” Instead, Burse locked the door, sexually assaulted Flynn and “warned her not to tell anyone about what occurred,” the lawsuit alleges.

According to the complaint, the chapel and Burse’s office are not monitored by security cameras, and the Department of Corrections “knew that the chapel is an isolated area and a common place where sexual violence may occur.”

There is also no policy preventing male prison employees from being alone with female prisoners, according to the lawsuit.

Flynn filed a grievance with the prison in August 2021 to report the two sexual assaults, and the prison told her that an investigation had been completed in January, the lawsuit states. Burse was later fired from his position as chaplain.

“NDOC and its employees knew that Mr. Burse had sexually assaulted other inmates and failed to take steps to prevent the same from happening to Ms. Flynn,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Nevada Department of Corrections declined to answer questions regarding the lawsuit, Burse’s employment history or allegations of other sexual assaults.

Burse’s criminal defense attorney, Sean Sullivan, previously told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the accusations were not credible.

“He is a longtime respected member of the community who grew up in Las Vegas and graduated from high school here,” Sullivan said. “I don’t believe these allegations have any merit. I ask everyone to keep an open mind until the evidence comes out.”

Sullivan did not reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Burse was released from custody on his own recognizance following his arrest, court records show. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 9.

In 2019, a jury convicted Flynn of conspiracy to commit murder and murder with a deadly weapon in connection with the November 2012 fatal shooting of Patrick Lowe, court records show. Police have said that Flynn and Lawrence Fuller shot Lowe after a cocaine deal went bad at an apartment complex near Twain Avenue and Paradise Road.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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