Considering the thousands upon thousands of criminal cases that have been investigated by police throughout Maryland over the last 30 years, and considering the number of criminal defendants who have been prosecuted by assistant state’s attorneys, convicted by juries and sentenced by judges during that time, you will not be shocked to learn that at least 33 of those defendants were wrongly convicted.
I drew that number from a national database maintained by a collaborative project of the law schools at the University of Michigan and Michigan State, along with the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine. The project, known as the National Registry of Exonerations, keeps records back to 1989 and has a list of 2,438 people who were released from prisons after a formal finding of innocence. The registry’s count of exonerations represents 21,290 years of wrongful imprisonment in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Maryland has a proportionate piece of the national tally. According to the registry, the 31 men and two women exonerated here since 1989 served a combined total of 446 years in prison for crimes — 26 of them murders — that they did not commit. That number includes Kenneth McPherson and Eric Simmons, two brothers from Baltimore who were cleared of a murder conspiracy conviction last week, some 24 years after they started serving life sentences. Both men are in their mid-40s now.
While even one wrongful conviction is disturbing, it’s important to consider the number of Maryland exonerations in the context of all criminal cases in the state since 1989, and there are two reasons for that.
First, it shows that, most of the time, the criminal justice system — cops and prosecutors, juries and judges — get it right; the vast majority of people who went into Maryland prisons over the last three decades were guilty as charged. A lot of them did not belong there — most drug addicts, for instance, should have gone to hospitals or treatment centers instead of to prisons — but, most of the time, those accused of felonies (robbery, murder, rape or assault) went where they belonged.
The second reason to consider the number of exonerations in the broader context is this: The state has an obligation to right these wrongs, and these are grave wrongs that cry out for compensation. Maryland’s relatively small number of exonerations means we could honor requests for lost-years compensation without causing a deficit in the state budget. And it’s not as much a “could” as a “should.” It’s part of the cost of justice.
That’s the reason I bring the matter up today: The Maryland Board of Public Works, entrusted with compensating people for wrongful prison time, has not paid anything to an exonerated person since 2004, and there is a waiting list of people who have made claims.
According to Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, at least five exonerated men have been waiting for the Board of Public Works to consider their claims. One of them, Malcolm Bryant, died while waiting. Another, Walter Lomax, served 38 years for murder and, in 2014, had his conviction vacated, with no objection from Baltimore prosecutors. He is still waiting for the board to consider his claim, as are three other men. Each have met the tests for eligibility.
To be compensated for lost years by the state, a person must obtain a writ of actual innocence from a judge, a legal remedy that has been on the books since 2009. Innocence must also be certified by the state’s attorney for the jurisdiction where the conviction occurred.
But, even then, state law does not require the board to compensate people for wrongful convictions, it merely suggests it. A state senator from Baltimore County, Delores Kelley, tried to change that during the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly.
She filed a bill to require and establish standards for compensation by the state, allow some of the money to cover legal fees in pursuit of compensation, and provide various forms of state assistance as an exonerated person re-enters society.
“I am sure,” Kelley told the Judicial Proceedings Committee, “that none of us wants the state to avoid providing just relief to persons who, after wrongful conviction and confinement, re-enter society as indigent, homeless, and/or unemployable persons, prohibited from seeking legal counsel and not even having an ID card.”
Kelley’s bill, however, never got out of committee for a vote. And since the Board of Public Works was waiting to see if the law would change, it took no action on the pending cases.
Among those waiting for compensation: James Hubert Williams, who spent 12 years in prison for an attempted murder that a Baltimore County police detective later determined Williams did not commit. He was exonerated 10 years ago, then certified innocent by the state’s attorney in 2017. But he has yet to receive a dime in compensation. (Mike Ricci, spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said this week that the case is in “the final stages of review.”)
His pro bono attorneys, Andrew George and Kristen Lloyd, of the Baker Botts firm in Washington, say compensation for Williams is long overdue. He has suffered severe psychological and physical health problems, they told the board, and the Veterans Administration considers him unemployable. Williams, now 67, has been homeless at times and has been physically attacked while living “an unstable and precarious life.” He was hospitalized again recently.
Once they’ve proven their innocence, no exonerated man or woman should have to wait so long to get some compensation and some help at readjustment. It’s just a matter of fairness, a matter of justice, and a matter of people in power caring enough to try and right a wrong.