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Issue of exoneree compensation returns to General Assembly

Four exonerees, clockwise from top left: Walter Lomax, Hubert James Williams, Lamar Johnson and Clarence Shipley. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount

Clockwise from top left are Maryland exonerees Walter Lomax, Hubert James Williams, Lamar Johnson and Clarence Shipley. (The Washington Post / Bonnie Jo Mount)

ANNAPOLIS — A push to reform and streamline the way Maryland compensates the wrongly convicted was heard in two General Assembly committees Wednesday.

Senate Bill 797 and House Bill 985 propose requiring the Maryland Board of Public Works to pay individuals who have been exonerated after a wrongful conviction. The BPW is currently authorized to compensate such individuals but has done so rarely.

“This legislation would make the process fairer and more efficient,” Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director for the Innocence Project, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

It is estimated that 22 individuals could be eligible to apply for compensation if the Maryland legislation is enacted, Feldman said.

In October, the board compensated five individuals, marking the first time in 15 years that any exoneree had received money from the state. Some people had waited years after petitioning the board — comprised of Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — prompting board members to question whether the BPW was the appropriate entity to handle such requests.

The legislation provides for a standard amount of compensation per year of incarceration — $78,916, based on the state’s median household income — and assigns the assessment of eligibility to administrative law judges. The bills would make people eligible for compensation if they are pardoned by the governor, the state’s attorney certifies their conviction was in error or the administrative law judge finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the conviction was in error.

Feldman said the current law, which requires a pardon or a certified writ of actual innocence from a prosecutor, limits access to compensation for many exonerees. Individuals exonerated by DNA evidence are not currently eligible for compensation.

“It shouldn’t matter how a conviction was overturned; it should matter that the person can prove that they were innocent,” Feldman said.

Under the legislation, the administrative law judge would issue an order of eligibility and include the monetary award, reasonable attorney’s fees associated with the eligibility proceeding, and any benefits and services, such as free access to obtaining identification, education training and health care.

If an individual receives a civil award through a lawsuit, that amount would be used to offset how much the person gets from the state.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, whose office has been responsible for nine exonerations through its Conviction Integrity Unit, said she has seen the men who are released struggle to acclimate to life outside of prison.

“This is a vital piece of legislation that seeks to ensure that those who are wrongly accused and convicted are given resources to reenter society,” she said. “This bill begins (to) right a wrong, an egregious wrong, and at least repair some of the damage done to them.”

Recent exonerees told the Senate committee that access to fair compensation would greatly improve their lives and ability to restart their lives after years or decades in prison.

Eric Simmons, exonerated last year after 24 years in prison, said his conviction had a ripple effect on his family, requiring his wife to be the sole breadwinner.

“Even though money won’t make us totally whole, it will go a long way,” he said. “If this bill was passed a long time ago, a lot of us could have got on with our lives.”

Demetrius Smith, exonerated in 2014, and Alfred Chestnut, exonerated last year, both told the committee that they want to run their own businesses and that compensation could help them.

A task force to study wrongful convictions, formed in 2017, 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.

Last year’s legislation made compensation mandatory to those who qualified and established standards to determine the amount. The cross-filed bills died in committee.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore city, sponsored the Senate bill. Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery, sponsored the House bill.

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