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Exonerees ask Md. for compensation law, jailhouse witness reform

A group of men exonerated for crimes they did not commit attended an event in Annapolis urging reforms for wrongful conviction compensation and jailhouse informants. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

A group of men exonerated for crimes they did not commit attended an event in Annapolis urging reforms for wrongful conviction compensation and jailhouse informants. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

ANNAPOLIS — A group of men who served a combined 250 years in prison for crimes they did not commit asked legislators Wednesday to support bills to standardize post-release compensation for exonerees and increase transparency about the use of jailhouse informants.

Ten exonerees and the son of one who died after his release attended an event hosted by the Innocent Project to push for reforms.

Kirk Bloodsworth, a 1993 exoneree, said he was arrested the same day as two other men attending the event.

“Lightning struck three times while we were in the bus (to jail),” he said. “That’s three innocent people on the same ride.”

Bloodsworth was sentenced to death and spent nine years in prison before becoming the first person in the country to be exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in 1993.

“No amount of money can ever make up for the time we suffered,” Bloodsworth said.

Walter Lomax, who was released in 2006 after 38 years in prison but not formally exonerated until 2014, said it is “appropriate and very important” to expedite the process to compensate people who are released after a wrongful conviction.

“No one will be able to even fathom what has happened to these men,” he said.

Individuals who receive a pardon from the governor or a certification of actual innocence from a prosecutor are eligible to petition the state for compensation for their time behind bars. The Board of Public Works is tasked with evaluating cases and awarding funds, but last summer a group of exonerees raised concerns about their petitions, which had been pending for months with no action.

Gov. Larry Hogan said the board lacked the “expertise, capacity, or personnel” to make such a determination. Although the board ultimately awarded the men a combined $9 million dollars, members’ reluctance to be the body overseeing the process remained.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, will sponsor legislation in the House of Delegates to take compensation out of the hands of the BPW and establish a standard amount of compensation per year of incarceration. The BPW chose to pay the five most recent petitioners $78,916 per year, the annual median household income in the state.

“We are going to fix it this year,” Dumais told the exonerees, and credited their advocacy and willingness to discuss their stories with the attention that the legislation has garnered.

Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, will sponsor the Senate version of the bill.

Lamar Johnson, who was exonerated in 2017, said it took 18 months for him to get compensation from the BPW. That’s too long for someone leaving prison, he said.

“I was free but I had to restart my life with nothing. No ID, no job training, nothing,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my mom, I would have been homeless.”

Ransom Watkins and Alfred Chestnut were incarcerated for 36 years for murder and released in November. Both said Wednesday that the lack of resources and support for them after their release has been difficult.

“You can’t just put a person on the street and tell them to go about their business and expect them to make it,” Watkins said.

Lamar Estep was 7 when his father, Malcolm Bryant, went to prison for a murder he did not commit.

“We served that sentence with him,” he said of the family.

Bryant was exonerated in 2016 but died the next year.

“It was a blessing to have that year with him, but I can’t help but think what might have been,” Estep said.

The Bryant family’s compensation request was denied because the law does not cover exonerations due to DNA testing, according to Estep.

Legislation impacting the use of jailhouse witnesses failed to gain traction last year, but Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., who sponsored the previous legislation, said this year’s bill is “tightened up.”

Smith, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that transparency around in-custody witnesses gives people “a shot at justice.”

Del. Debra Davis, D-Charles, and Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, will sponsor the House version of the bill.

Demetrius Smith, who was exonerated in 2014 after serving two years in prison for murder, called wrongful incarceration “the worst nightmare you can imagine.”

Smith said he learned after his conviction that a jailhouse informant had given false testimony against him after writing to the judge and asking for a deal in exchange for cooperation.

“There were a lot of reasons to doubt the jailhouse informant’s story,” he said.

The legislation discussed Wednesday is still forthcoming.

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