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Exoneree compensation bill fails to pass as Republicans object

Walter Lomax

Walter Lomax, left, speaks with reporters in April in Baltimore after prosecutors dropped a murder charge brought against him in 1967. Behind him is his lead lawyer, William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. (The Daily Record/File photo)

The General Assembly failed to pass legislation that would streamline the process for the wrongfully convicted to receive compensation and other benefits, frustrating advocates who hoped that years of work would finally pay off.

The bill, named after exoneree Walter Lomax, who served 39 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, died on the Senate floor Wednesday in the waning hours of an abbreviated legislative session after Senate Republicans voiced objections.

Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director for the Innocence Project, said she had to call Lomax — who suffered a heart attack shortly before a hearing on the Senate version of the bill last month — to inform him of the outcome.

“To hear his voice, his voice just broke when I told him,” she said. “He has worked on this for so long and it’s not even going to benefit him. He’s got his compensation.”

Current law authorizes the Board of Public Works to compensate certain exonerated individuals, but the process proposed by cross-filed bills this session removed the board’s discretion.

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 were 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.

House Bill 985 was passed by the House of Delegates on March 16, with amendments, by a vote of 123-9. It received a favorable report from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday but stalled on the Senate floor after Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, and Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, raised concerns about the breadth of the bill and potential abuse of the system.

But Feldman said their arguments and logic were “completely flawed” and called them “red herrings and distractions.”

“Nobody had voiced any concern until Monday, when the bill was at Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee,” Feldman said. “And it feels like Senate Republicans took advantage of a crisis to stop innocent people from getting compensated.”

Cassilly said that the bill would allow someone incarcerated for a short period of time — weeks or months rather than years — to be compensated and receive benefits such as housing, education and health care. He also suggested that local state’s attorneys have a significant amount of power in the process and could abuse it.

“Perhaps there was a state’s attorney who just wanted to use this law to just hand out lots of taxpayers’ money in gross,” Cassilly said.

Ready pointed to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s order Wednesday asking prosecutors in her office to drop pending charges for nonviolent offenses, including drug possession, prostitution, trespassing and minor traffic offenses, and her letter to the governor pushing for the release of inmates 60 and older.

“When we talk about being concerned with this bill … that’s our concern with this bill,” Ready said, noting that he wanted to support the bill for people like Lomax.

Cassilly was critical of Mosby, though he did not mention her by name, in his arguments on the Senate floor.

“The whole thing comes down, ultimately, to the state’s attorney to honestly uphold their oath of office and adhere to their obligation under the constitution of the state to administer all the laws of this body,” Cassilly said. “But we have a state’s attorney who just went on public record and said: ‘I’m not going to do it. I don’t care what you people in Annapolis say. No matter what you say, I’m not going to abide by the laws you put out,’ and what this bill would do is to hand that very state’s attorney the ability to start handing out our money with no checks and balances.”

Mosby’s office established a Conviction Integrity Unit and has exonerated at least nine individuals by writs of actual innocence.

“It became an attack on Marilyn Mosby, for what reason I don’t really know,” Feldman said. “She’s the only person that is exonerating people.”

The bill passed second reader in the Senate, with amendments from the committee, but 15 Senate Republicans voted against JPR Chair Sen. William C. Smith Jr.’s motion to suspend the rules and allow a third reading on the same day, causing the motion to fail.

Feldman pointed out that Gov. Larry Hogan, a member of the BPW, asked the legislature to take action on exoneree compensation and did not oppose the bill.

“The governor was the one calling on the legislature to fix the law and his own party killed it,” she said. “It was death by delay. They ran out the clock.”

Cassilly said Friday that issues might have been worked out if the legislative session had continued to its scheduled date.

“This was not intended to be a partisan thing,” he said. “This was trying to do the right thing and trying to shape a bill to make a bill workable.”

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