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Maryland fails at doing the right thing on wrongful convictions

L-R (top) Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson,. L-R (bottom) Hubert James Williams Jr. and Clarence Shipley Jr., have all been exonerated of crimes and seek compensation from the state for a combined 81 years of wrongful incarceration.
L-R (top) Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson,. L-R (bottom) Hubert James Williams Jr. and Clarence Shipley Jr., have all been exonerated of crimes and seek compensation from the state for a combined 81 years of wrongful incarceration. (staff / Baltimore Sun)

In criminal justice, police, prosecutors, judges, juries and witnesses to crimes sometimes get it wrong. They make mistakes. When the system discovers that it put an innocent man or woman in prison, it should do the right thing.

Saying, “Sorry, tough luck” doesn’t cut it. The state should apologize and provide some compensation for the years of life and liberty lost to a wrongful conviction.

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I return to this subject today because there’s a waiting list of exonerated individuals, and the Maryland Board of Public Works, which has authority to provide them compensation, still has not done so.

This month, pro bono attorneys for four exonerated men are pressing the board to act.

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Each of their clients followed the procedure set out in state law for seeking compensation: They obtained writs of actual innocence from a judge in the jurisdiction where they were tried, and they have been certified innocent by the state’s attorney’s office that prosecuted them.

But nothing has happened. The lack of action suggests indifference or indecision or perhaps reluctance to face up to mistakes. Whatever it is, it is unacceptable in a state that values justice and fairness.

Last week, attorneys for the four men -- Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson (no relation), Hubert James Williams Jr. and Clarence Shipley Jr. — wrote to the board in an effort to get on its agenda. As a group, those four represent 81 years of wrongful incarceration. (A fifth man, Walter Lomax, served 38 years for murder before a judge released him in 2006. His conviction was vacated in 2014. He is still waiting for the board to consider his request for compensation.)

“Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Mr. Shipley, and Mr. Williams suffered behind bars in Maryland for decades for crimes they did not commit,” the attorneys wrote in a letter dated July 18. “The least they deserve is for the state to provide them fair and timely compensation.

“Each endured unimaginable pain while incarcerated: the hopelessness that drove at least one of them to repeatedly attempt suicide, the torture of solitary confinement, the fear and humiliation of physical and sexual violence at the hands of fellow inmates, and the horror of waking up each morning separated from loved ones who went through life’s milestones without them.

“Our clients were physically and mentally broken by their wrongful incarcerations. Unable to support himself, one of our clients has spent many nights on the streets and is continually victimized by those around him.”

That last reference is to Williams, who is 67. He has been homeless for long stretches of time since November 2009, when a Baltimore County judge concluded that he had nothing to do with a barroom robbery in Essex in 1997. Williams spent nearly 12 years in prison before a county detective took a second look at the crime and determined that the wrong man had paid a price for it. On the day the judge set him free, Williams walked out of the Towson courthouse with only the $4 a police officer gave him for the bus ride home.

The three other men — Shipley, 47, Jerome Johnson, 51, and Lamar Johnson, 36 — were each convicted of murder and spent 27, 30 and 13 years in prison, respectively, before they were exonerated.

“There is no ‘right’ number for damages that is commensurate with the wrongful incarceration and resulting suffering and loss of enjoyment of life that the state inflicted on these innocent men,” their lawyers wrote the board. “No amount of money will fully compensate our clients, and it is difficult to compare the pain and suffering that each man endured.”

The lawyers, who are prohibited by state law from receiving any part of potential compensation, proposed $100,000 for each year lost to imprisonment. “Compensating them at this uniform rate totals $8.1 million,” the lawyers wrote. “With Mr. Lomax included, it totals $12 million. The Board should promptly compensate these exonerees in full. Our clients have already lost decades in prison, and they should not have to wait several more years for complete payment.

“The Board cannot ignore the pain and suffering of these men,” the lawyers added. “By failing to effectuate the existing statute, the Board is bestowing upon Maryland the shameful status of being one of the few states in the nation that fails to compensate the wrongfully incarcerated.”

I contacted the office of each board member. The governor’s office had “nothing new to add.” The state comptroller declined comment. Her executive assistant said state treasurer Nancy Kopp “has read the letter, and said that she agrees with the attorneys of the exonerated inmates on the injustices they have suffered, and welcomes continued dialogue with their offices.”

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But there’s no indication yet the board is committed to compensating these men, even a little. Despite the state’s Democratic dominance, its claim to progressiveness and its wealth, Maryland has been stingy with compensation for wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law counts 14 other people — besides the men I’ve mentioned today — who have been exonerated and qualified for relief since 2004. Only one received any compensation.

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