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Wrongfully convicted Maryland man to get nearly $1 million payment

Maryland’s Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved a payment of nearly $1 million to a Baltimore man who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

It is the second payment that the man, 73-year-old Michael Austin, has received for the time he spent behind bars. He became eligible for a larger sum after the passage of the Walter Lomax Act, a 2021 law that standardized how Maryland compensates the wrongfully convicted.

“We’re thrilled for Michael,” said Larry Nathans, who represented Austin with lawyer Booth Ripke. “He’s incredibly deserving of the money.”

The three-member Board of Public Works unanimously approved the payment of  $992,693 to Austin and $32,600 in attorney’s fees.

Austin was granted $1.4 million for his wrongful conviction in 2004, three years after he was freed from prison and one year after he received a pardon from then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich. The payment was spread out over 10 years.

A jury found Austin guilty of murder and robbery in 1975. He was wrongfully convicted of killing a security guard during an armed robbery at a Baltimore grocery store in April 1974.

Though eyewitnesses described a shooter who did not look like Austin, a tipster identified him to police after investigators released a composite sketch a month after the murder, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Austin had an alibi, but his defense lawyer did not present evidence to support it at his trial.

In 1997, after the key witness at the trial had died, his brother came forward and said the witness had admitted to helping convict an innocent man in the crime.

A Baltimore City Circuit judge reversed Austin’s conviction in 2001 and prosecutors soon decided not to retry him, according to the registry.

Austin is an accomplished musician, but has been struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the administrative law decision that granted Austin the supplemental payment.

“He has some significant health and financial problems,” said Nathans, of the law firm Nathans & Biddle.

Austin is the third exoneree to receive a supplemental payment under the new law, which requires that the wrongfully convicted be paid the state’s median annual household income for each year they spent behind bars.

The 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.

Leslie Vass received the second supplemental payment last month. The Board of Public Works awarded him an additional $550,000 for the years he spent in prison after his wrongful conviction for robbery in 1975.