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Dozens of delegates urge BPW to act on exoneree compensation

Exoneree Walter Lomax, left, with attorney William H. ‘Billy’ Murphy Jr. in 2014. Lomax was released in 2006 after 39 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Exoneree Walter Lomax, left, with attorney William H. ‘Billy’ Murphy Jr. in 2014. Lomax was released in 2006 after 39 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A group of Maryland delegates is urging the Board of Public Works to compensate five men who were wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.

In a letter to the board’s members — Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — the delegates “respectfully request that the Board of Public Works promptly resolve” the pending petitions for compensation. The letter, dated Tuesday and released publicly Wednesday, is signed by Del. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, and more than 40 others, including House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County.

The five men — Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams — have petitioned the board under state law. In July, attorneys for four of the men sent a letter to the board asking for action.

The exonerees spent a combined 120 years in prison.

Board staff members have met “several times” to discuss the petitions, according to the July letter, but some petitions have been pending for more than a year yet no formal action has been taken. The delegates’ letter urges the board to resolve the petitions for the men, who each followed Maryland law by seeking compensation from the board.

“The board has all the power in the world to do this and if they want to do it, they can do it,” said Neel Lalchandani, an attorney representing Jerome Johnson and Shipley who helped write the letter. “They could fix this problem next week.”

Franchot said in a statement that the board would work toward a solution given the legislature’s “inability, or unwillingness, to resolve this issue during this past session.”

Hogan issued a response Wednesday afternoon acknowledging that wrongfully convicted individuals “deserve to be justly compensated as they work to rebuild their lives” but said the legislature needed to act.

A task force to study wrongful convictions was formed in 2017 and published recommendations in December 2018, but none have been adopted by the General Assembly. The final report of the task force recommended that the Board of Public Works adopt a process and procedure for handling petitions for compensation from exonerees, and that it also strike provisions from the law that require the board to develop reentry plans when people are released.

But Hettleman on Wednesday said blaming the legislature was a “red herring.” While she endorsed a legislative solution, she emphasized that the five men currently petitioning the board can be helped now with the existing law.

“In these five men’s cases, (the Board of Public Works doesn’t) need the General Assembly to act,” she said. “They can do it themselves.”

Hogan, however, said the Board of Public Works is not the appropriate venue for the cases and lacks the “expertise, capacity, or personnel to make determinations as to the damages incurred for each individual’s pain and suffering.”

Hogan suggested that the board may “seek out an appropriate third party” to make determinations about compensation, such as administrative law judges.

 

‘Frustrating’

Lalchandani, of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP in Baltimore, said the issue of compensation for exonerees is simple and does not require a lot of study or work groups.

“Maryland locked up people wrongly, they’ve been exonerated, they deserve compensation and the board has the power to award that compensation,” he said.

Shipley said Wednesday that he’s disappointed that nothing has been done with his petition.

“After the state of Maryland took 27 years of my life, no apology, nothing,” he said.

Shipley was exonerated in December after the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project became involved in his case. He said he is still trying to adjust to being out of prison and is frustrated with the board’s delay.

“I thought the governor, you know, I still do like the governor, but I thought he was a man of integrity and decency,” he said. “I even told my wife to vote for him. Many nights, I prayed for him and his family when he was going through his cancer, the treatment, and nothing from the governor.”

Lamar Johnson was released almost two years ago after 13 years in prison, also after the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took his case. He said he believes the state will eventually do the right thing.

“I would love for the board, the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer to admit that it was a mistake, I was wrongly convicted and I should be fully compensated,” he said.

Shipley and Johnson both work for a company doing construction and repair work. Johnson said they talk about their compensation petitions every day.

“It would mean financial freedom,” Johnson said. “I would be able to help my mom, I would be able to start my own business. It would just relieve a lot of stress, financial freedom.”

Johnson said that starting from scratch and rebuilding his life has been difficult and that, after almost two years, he is still adjusting.

“My life could change for the better overnight whenever the state does the right thing,” he said. “But right now, it’s just like I know they’re going to do the right thing, it’s just, like, when?”

Shipley too said money from the state could help his family.

“We’re still struggling, still living in a project,” he said. “It would do a lot. It would do a lot for me and my family.”

Jerome Johnson, incarcerated for 30 years, was released in July 2018 after attorney Nancy Forster brought his case to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit.

Williams, also a Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project client, was incarcerated in Baltimore County for 12 years and was released in 2009. Lomax was released in 2006 after 39 years in prison.

Hettleman said that no amount of money can redress what the men have been through but that the state can help.

“We’re sort of compounding our mistakes now in not providing some sort of compensation to these men who spent way too many years in prison for crimes they did not commit,” she said.

Franchot said the miscarriages of justice in the five men’s cases have cost them homes, jobs, families and dignity.

“While the State of Maryland can never truly repay them for everything they’ve lost, we have an obligation to compensate them at a level that will help them rebuild their lives,” he said in a statement.

 


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