A unanimous Maryland Senate passed legislation Wednesday to ensure the wrongly convicted receive financial compensation from the state for their years in prison.
Senate Bill 14 would require the state’s Board of Public Works to approve the compensation amount based on a formula set forth in the bill. The three-member board – consisting of the governor, comptroller and treasurer – currently has discretion to compensate the wrongly convicted.
The bill would provide for a standard amount of compensation per year of incarceration — $83,242 based on the state’s median household income — and assign the assessment of eligibility to administrative law judges.
S.B. 14 would make people eligible for compensation if they were fully pardoned by the governor or an administrative law judge finds by clear and convincing evidence that the conviction was erroneous based on several factors, including that the charges were dismissed, the conviction was reversed or a retrial resulted in acquittal.
S.B. 14 has been dubbed the Walter Lomax Act in honor of an exoneree who served 39 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and who suffered a near-fatal heart attack in Annapolis last year while lobbying lawmakers to pass compensation legislation.
Lomax was wrongly convicted for the 1967 murder of Robert Brewer at the Giles Food Market he managed in Baltimore. Lomax was awarded about $3 million in compensation from the Board of Public Works in October 2019, nearly 13 year after his release from prison.
A similar compensation bill died in the Senate last year amid opposition from Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, who voiced concerns about the breadth of the measure and potential abuse of the system.
But Cassilly told his colleagues Wednesday that his concerns from 2020 have been alleviated.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Cassilly called this year’s measure “a good, strong bipartisan bill that serves the interest of the public generally but also these very unfortunate people who somehow fell through the cracks of our criminal justice system and whose lives were irretrievably damaged.”
Sen. Delores G. Kelley, the bill’s chief sponsor, thanked her colleagues for their unanimous vote.
“To see all of you, bless you, put your imprimatur on that bill was a sign that we do have mercy and we do love justice and that when we work hard enough, we care enough, we can make anything happen,” said Kelley, D-Baltimore County.
With the Senate’s 47-0 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where the Judiciary Committee will consider the cross-filed measure. Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D. Montgomery, is chief sponsor of House Bill 742.
“I am humbled and honored that this bill has been named after me,” Lomax told the House committee Wednesday.
“Each individual (exoneree) is going to experience a great deal of trauma and no one is the same,” Lomax added. “The best or the least that can be done is that they can be compensated in a timely fashion so that they can at least be able to live some type of quality life moving forward,” he added. “That is why it is so important that this piece of legislation be passed.”
The legislative activity followed the Board of Public Works’ award of about $13 million in the past year to five men who were wrongly convicted and spent decades in prison.
In June, the board awarded nearly $4 million to brothers Eric Simmons and Kenneth McPherson who served 24 years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the 1994 murder of 21-year-old Anthony Wooden in East Baltimore.
Last March, the board awarded nearly $3 million each to Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart who served 36 years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the 1983 murder of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School in Baltimore.
The five men were exonerated following investigations by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit.