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Md. board approves $9M in compensation for exonerees

Walter Lomax

Walter Lomax, left, speaks with reporters after prosecutors dropped a murder charge brought against him in 1967. He is one of five exonerees who will be receiving a total of $9 million in compensation from the state. (File photo: Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Board of Public Works voted unanimously Wednesday to approve more than $9 million in compensation for five men who were wrongfully incarcerated.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who sits on the board along with Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, released a statement announcing the approval, expressing his appreciation to board staff for “hard work behind the scenes that made today’s action possible.”

The five men — Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams — had all petitioned the board under state law for compensation for their combined 120 years spent in prison before being exonerated. Some of the petitions had been pending for more than a year when attorneys for four of the men, working pro bono, sent a letter to the board in July asking for action.

Dozens of delegates wrote the board in September urging its members to take up the petitions. Hogan took the position that the board was not qualified to assess the needs of wrongfully incarcerated individuals and called on the legislature to take action. But he issued a response to the delegates’ letter, acknowledging that the men deserved to be justly compensated, and board staff eventually began drafting a compensation plan.

The board decided to award each man $78,916 for each year incarcerated, according to Franchot, which is the amount of the annual median household income in the state. Each exoneree will receive $78,916 within 30 days of the board’s approval, subject to their acceptance and signature on a release.

Attorneys said the amount the board decided to award per year is in line with other states that recently compensated exonerees.

“I think it’s certainly clear that the board put in some thought and worked really hard at arriving at a number and getting this done,” said Neel Lalchandani, an attorney representing Jerome Johnson and Shipley.

Lalchandani, of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP in Baltimore, said using the median income, which can increase over time, would be a good number to codify in future legislation.

Dan Starck, an attorney for Williams, said the legislature “definitely needs to create a clearer process for compensation claims.” Starck, of Baker Botts LLP in Washington, said Williams began pursuing a petition on his own almost as soon as he was released in 2009, so it has been a 10-year process for him.

Geoffrey Derrick, who represents Lamar Johnson, said he does not fault the board to taking the time it needed to determine how much the exonerees should be paid. He said he and his client are “ecstatic” about the amount.

“I’m pleased that the board ultimately reached a number that makes these exonerees especially happy and seems like a fair assessment, a fair way to compensate them for the time they spent wrongfully incarcerated,” said Derrick, of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington.

Jerome Johnson will receive $2.3 million, Lamar Johnson will receive $943,000, Lomax will receive $3 million, Shipley will receive $2.1 million and Williams will receive $893,000. Each man will also receive $10,600 for mental health and financial counseling and after the initial $78,916, the payments will be made across several years.

Williams was “a mix of overjoyed and relieved” at the award, according to Starck. Williams was among the most vulnerable of the five exonerees, struggling with homelessness and hospitalization while his petition was pending.

“James was actually panhandling a couple of weeks ago so it’s a very drastic and positive change for him,” Kristen Lloyd, another attorney for Williams, said.

Lomax has been waiting even longer for compensation, according to attorney Philip T. Inglima. He was released in 2006 and received a writ of actual innocence in 2014.

“That shouldn’t happen ever again in the history of the state of Maryland,” said Inglima, of Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington. “It’s not anywhere close to the responsible thing for a government to do.”

Inglima said compensation to exonerees who were innocent should be compulsory, not optional, for the state. He and Lomax have both testified on legislation that would change the law.

Del. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, who sent the letter signed by more than 40 of her colleagues to the board in September, said Wednesday she is “thrilled” the board acted.

“The BPW had the power all along to provide compensation to five men (who we all agree) were wrongfully incarcerated,” she said in an email. “Unfortunately, the state cannot give them back the dozens of years that many of them spent behind bars, but we hope that these funds will help make their transition to life outside of the walls a little smoother.”

Maryland has paid a total of $3 million to seven exonerees since the General Assembly passed a law allowing such compensation in 1963, according to a Board of Public Works official, Sheila McDonald.

Before Lomax’s award, the largest award was $1.4 million, paid over 10 years, to Michael Austin in 2004.

State law permits the board to grant compensation for someone who was “erroneously convicted, sentenced, and confined under State law for a crime the individual did not commit” who has been pardoned by the governor or received certification from the local state’s attorney that their conviction was in error.

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