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State to fix payment for time lost to man wrongly convicted

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The state government will decide tomorrow how much to pay Michael Austin for the 27 years he spent in prison on a faulty murder conviction, potentially turning the Baltimore man into a millionaire.

Maryland law limits compensation for exonerated and pardoned prisoners to the actual economic damages they suffered while imprisoned, such as lost wages, plus additional payments for financial or other counseling.

State officials would not say yesterday what those damages come to in Austin's case, but using as a guide the 2003 payment to Bernard Webster, who served 20 years for a rape he did not commit, Austin would get roughly $1.2 million.

"It's just a great thing, what the governor and the other members of the board are doing, publicly acknowledging that he is an innocent man and giving him in their best judgment what the state can afford to pay him in compensation," said Jim McCloskey. McCloskey is the founder and director of Centurion Ministries, which helped free Austin.

Austin was 25 when he was accused of the 1974 murder of grocery store security guard Roy Kellam.

Austin is 7 inches taller than the killer that eyewitnesses described and was at work at the time of the murder, but a jury convicted him after a trial rife with mistaken identification, misused evidence and inadequate legal representation.

In 1994, he sent a letter to Centurion, a Princeton, N.J., group that helps prisoners it believes are innocent. Centurion hired a private investigator to look into the case, and its findings led to an examination of the case by The Sun in March 2001.

Nine months later, Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes overturned his conviction, and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy decided not to prosecute him again.

Once freed, Austin began a career in public speaking and formed a jazz band, Michael Austin and the True Spirit. But facing financial difficulty, Austin petitioned Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for a pardon last year, a necessary step for receiving state compensation.

In November, Ehrlich called Austin to apologize and grant him the pardon.

The Board of Public Works, which consists of Ehrlich, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, makes the final decision on how much to grant exonerated prisoners.

Mary Jo Childs, the general counsel for the board, said the state's Department of Budget and Management evaluates exonerated prisoners' requests for compensation and proposes an initial figure, which the board can then adjust.

Austin's request is the third the board has heard in the last decade. In the two previous instances, the board approved the proposed amounts without discussion. Webster got $900,000 for his 20 years in prison, and in 1994, Kirk Bloodsworth, who was wrongly convicted of murder, got $300,000 for his 10 years in prison.

Austin's attorney, Larry Nathans, declined to say how much Austin requested. But his petition to the government notes that at the time of his arrest, Austin had a job in an iron factory with plans to learn how to use heavy machinery and move up from pouring molten iron.

"He was working full-time, with considerable income, at a steady job with the expectation of advancement," the petition says. "He was 26 years old. His aspirations were blue collar goals, not unattainable dreams." The petition includes economic analyses of Austin's potential income, Social Security payments, pensions and other data, but it also describes the horrors of more than two decades in prison, a time when it says Austin feared for his life every time he stepped out of his cell.

"He is a 56-year-old man who spent half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. For the first time in decades, he is now safe, but he is not secure," the petition says.

"He does not own a home; he has no bank account, no credit card, no credit history, no health or life insurance, no retirement, pension, disability, or social security. Given the lost time, he has little ability to acquire anything it takes a lifetime to nurture."

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