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Maryland awards $800,000 to man wrongfully convicted in 1982 rape

A Maryland man who served nearly 20 years in prison for a 1982 rape he did not commit was awarded more than $800,000 in additional compensation Wednesday by the state’s Board of Public Works.

The  board voted in favor of paying the man, Bernard Webster, who became eligible for the money after state lawmakers passed an updated formula to calculate how much is owed to exonerees.

Under the Walter Lomax Act, which took effect last year, compensation for the wrongfully convicted is calculated based on the state’s most recent annual median household income and multiplied by the length of the prison term.

Webster initially received $900,000 in 2003, after his release from prison. But under the new law, Webster became eligible for a total payment of $1.7 million. Webster will receive an additional $806,730 after Wednesday’s vote.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said he hoped the money provided Webster a sense of vindication.

“This compensation cannot make up for the years Mr. Webster spent behind bars, separated from his family, friends and loved ones, years that could have been spent pursuing his hopes and dreams and living his life freely,” Franchot said. “Like all Marylanders who’ve been imprisoned wrongfully, Mr. Webster is a victim of a broken criminal justice system.”

Webster was freed in 2002, after DNA testing exonerated him in the rape of a Towson woman. Webster became the first person exonerated under Maryland’s postconviction DNA law, according to an Innocence Project profile of his case.

The victim in the case told police in July 1982 that she had entered her bedroom and been attacked by a man who jumped out of her closer and covered her head. The man, whom the woman described as a Black male with close-cropped hair, threatened to shoot the woman and then raped her, according to the Innocence Project.

Webster was arrested based on identifications by eyewitnesses who said they saw a man resembling that description at the apartment complex.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that semen on the victim’s bedspread came from a person with Webster’s blood type, though the forensic testing actually could not have distinguished the blood type that specifically, according to the Innocence Project.

Webster had an alibi and two witnesses who said they were with him at the time of the crime, but he was nonetheless convicted in March 1983 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Under Maryland’s new postconviction DNA testing law, the Office of the Public Defender filed a request to retest the forensic evidence in the case in 2001. Two subsequent tests excluded Webster as a contributor to the DNA collected from the crime scene.

Neel Lalchandani, a lawyer with Brown, Goldstein & Levy who worked to get the supplemental compensation for Webster, noted that the Walter Lomax Act also provides comprehensive benefits to exonerees, including medical care and mental health treatment.

He said the money and benefits will help Webster, now 59, prepare for the next stage of his life.

“It’s hard, when you miss out on two decades of the prime of your life, to build a meaningful career and to have the stability and the savings and the skill set to move into retirement comfortably,” Lalchandani said.

“Mr. Webster will be able to use this money to have transportation and to have a place of his own and to really, hopefully, experience some peace and stability.”