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Wrongfully convicted man awarded $550,000 under Walter Lomax Act

Leslie Vass, 64, will receive $550,000 for a wrongful robbery conviction in 1975 that put him behind bars for nearly a decade. (Courtesy Neel Lalchandani)

A Baltimore man who was wrongfully convicted of robbery in 1975 and spent nearly a decade behind bars will receive more than $550,000 under a new law that standardizes how the state compensates exonerees.

Leslie Vass, now 64, became eligible for the payment under the Walter Lomax Act, a 2021 state law that created a formula to calculate how much money wrongfully convicted people should receive. He is the second person to receive compensation under the new law.

The three-member Board of Public Works unanimously approved the payment to Vass at its meeting Wednesday. The $550,000 is in addition to $250,000 Vass received after he was pardoned in 1986.

Neel Lalchandani, a lawyer with Brown, Goldstein, and Levy, LLP, who worked on Vass’ case, said the wrongful conviction continues to haunt Vass’ life. It precluded Vass from an employment opportunity last year, Lalchandani said.

“That’s honestly been one of the most difficult parts of the wrongful conviction, because he just cannot move forward from that,” Lalchandani said.

The payment under the Walter Lomax Act also brings other benefits, Lalchandani said, including health care, education opportunities and job training.

Vass declined to comment for this story through Lalchandani.

The new law, which took effect in July, requires that the wrongfully convicted be paid the state’s median annual household income for each year they spent behind bars.

The law also allows an administrative law judge to determine an exoneree’s eligibility. In Vass’ case, a judge determined that he should receive a total of $806,787 for the more than nine years he spent in prison between 1975 and 1984.

Vass was 17 years old when he was accused in an armed robbery and prosecuted as an adult. A judge found Vass guilty and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

The only witness who identified Vass in the robbery recanted in 1984, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and Vass was released from prison.

The charges were dismissed and Gov. Harry Hughes granted Vass a pardon in 1986, after which the Board of Public Works approved a $250,000 payment to Vass.

The amount awarded Wednesday subtracted that previous payment from the total owed to Vass. The remaining $556,787 will be paid out in installments through July 2022.

“I think that’s in recognition that the first payment all those years ago wasn’t sufficient or commensurate with the harm that Mr. Vass suffered,” Lalchandani said.

“It’s also in recognition of the fact that a wrongful conviction has lasting effects for the rest of an individual’s life,” he said.

The new law is named for Walter Lomax, who spent 39 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and who has advocated for the wrongfully convicted since his release in 2006.

Lomax and other advocates argued for years that the system for compensating exonerees was slow and inconsistent. The new law loosened eligibility requirements and mandated that the Board of Public Works pay exonerees through the funding formula.

The first man to receive a payment under the law was Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted of rape and murder in 1985 and exonerated through DNA evidence after he spent nearly nine years in prison, including two years on death row. The Board of Public Works awarded him more than $400,000 earlier this month, after subtracting $300,000 that Bloodsworth received 27 years ago.