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Legislative obstacles hurt efforts to protect wrongly convicted, lawmakers say

Rebecca Brown, left, director of policy with The Innocence Project; Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George's; Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City; and Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Balimore County during a panel discussion on (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Rebecca Brown, left, director of policy with The Innocence Project; Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George’s; Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City; and Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County during a panel discussion Thursday on wrongful convictions at the University of Baltimore School of Law. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Institutional obstacles in the Maryland General Assembly impede legislative efforts to enable the wrongly convicted to prove their innocence and, once exonerated, to be appropriately compensated for the years they lost, state legislators said Thursday.

These hurdles include the need for legislators to compromise to get bills passed; a part-time legislature made up of people whose full time jobs are tied to the status quo; and the General Assembly’s practice of enacting laws without much debate, the lawmakers said at a Baltimore conference on wrongful convictions.

“People are playing games as though on a chess board,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

She cited legislation to broaden the ability of convicts to submit petitions for actual innocence in one session being weakened by prosecutors seeking greater notice of the petitions the following year.

Kelley said forging such compromises is part of the legislative process but wondered aloud why all foreseeable issues are often not debated during the same General Assembly session.

Senate Majority Leader Catherine E. Pugh, D-Baltimore, agreed that compromise is needed but not to such a degree that the goal of the legislation is lost.

A General Assembly session is “90 days of pure working to make sure the bill you’re working on gets passed,” said Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Baltimore.

Rebecca Brown, who lobbies nationwide on behalf of the wrongly convicted for the Innocence Project, said such bill-weakening compromises is not unique to the Maryland legislature.

“What comes with every compromise is the denial of rights” for the wrongly convicted, said Brown, the project’s policy director and moderator of the lawmakers’ discussion at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “No one benefits from a wrongful conviction but the real assailant.”

Brown lauded Maryland for being among the first states to provide for post-conviction DNA testing and to require robust oversight of crime labs. She said Maryland is one of 31 states that provide wrongly convicted defendants a statutory right to compensation.

But Kelley interjected that the compensation is paid only if the governor essentially grants a pardon to the released individual by finding that the conviction was conclusively shown to be wrong. The compensation then has to be approved by the Board of Public Works, consisting of the governor, comptroller and treasurer.

“The governor has too much to do with that,” Kelley said.

Difficult calculation

Pugh said a main hurdle in providing statutory compensation to the wrongly convicted is calculating how much they are owed financially and in assistance them to readjust to society.

“How do you value each person’s life who has been incarcerated for a period of time?” Pugh said. “What are their lives going to be like even after they have left the (prison) institution?”

Kelley, a retired Coppin State University professor, said true legislative change regarding the rights of the wrongly convicted will occur when lawmakers become more focused on the legislation and less on their day jobs, which in many cases includes careers linked to the criminal justice system.

“We all need to put away our other hats [and] be neutral and fair,” Kelley said.

Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George’s and a member of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said his day job includes being an appellate attorney.

In that capacity, he said efforts of Maryland lawmakers to provide greater statutory rights for the wrongfully convicted are undermined because the text of laws often does not reflect the legislature’s intent. Much of the legislative history also is lost because many of the bills pass with limited debate, added Barron, of counsel with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Bethesda.

As a result, appellate courts often must rely on the statutory text, regardless of how nebulous it might be, because the judges have only “a dearth of legislative history” to help them clarify the confusion, Barron said.

To remedy this situation, he said bill sponsors must spend more time explaining on the floors of the Senate and House just what their bills are intended to accomplish.

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