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Baltimore paid a wrongfully convicted man $9M to resolve a lawsuit. Is there a cheaper, quicker way to settle cases?

Almost a decade passed between the time when James L. Owens Jr. was freed from prison for a crime he didn't commit and Baltimore agreed to pay him $9 million to resolve a lawsuit.

Officials and advocates who have been reviewing how to handle such wrongful convictions have an idea to speed up the process — and potentially save taxpayers money.

Owens was convicted of murder in 1988 in the death of 24-year-old Colleen Williar, but DNA evidence eventually cleared his name. He was released from prison in 2008 and sued the detectives and prosecutors who sent him to prison.

The city eventually agreed to settle the case — the largest such deal ever reached in Baltimore — but not before it spent 7 years in court, a journey that included a trip to a federal appeals court in Richmond.

A state task force on wrongful convictions has proposed another option. Instead of going to court, those who have been exonerated would be able to take their case to the state’s Board of Public Works and get $50,000 for each year they spent locked up.

Under that system, the 21 years Owens spent in custody would have worked out to about $1 million. The amount is much lower than his settlement, but his attorney said he would likely have given it real consideration.

Andy Freeman, the lawyer, said the calculation would come down to how quickly and with what certainty someone coming out of prison can expect to get paid.

For others, such a system might be their only chance to get compensation.

“There are lots of wrongfully incarcerated people who don’t meet the legal standards for bringing a lawsuit,” Freeman said. “The years that they spent were as horrible as the years Mr. Owens spent.”

People who have been wrongfully convicted can ask the state board for payment now, but the board can deny compensation. The task force’s proposal is to require the board to pay.

The General Assembly considered legislation to implement the proposal this year. It passed in the House of Delegates, but not in the Senate.

Scott Shellenberger, Baltimore County’s state’s attorney and chairman of the wrongful conviction task force, said he’s hopeful lawmakers will take up the idea again when they return to session in 2019.

“There's a good argument to be made next year,” Shellenberger said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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