Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Seeking compensation for a wrongful conviction and an 'altogether tragic life'

I look into his face and see everything James Williams tells me, everything his young lawyers describe, everything in the psychiatric evaluations and police reports. I see confirmation of a hard life that started with physical and mental cruelty, moved quickly into drinking and drugs, followed by bad decisions and bad luck, beatings and blackouts, depression, attempts at suicide, homelessness, panhandling, and two stints in prison for crimes of violence — one he deserved, and one he absolutely did not deserve.

I can see all that in the lines and cracks, in the deep-set eyes, the toothless drag on a cigarette. It’s there in the way Williams recalls, in broken chronology, much of what happened over the last half-century, after his Vietnam-era stint in the Navy and the Maryland National Guard. Remarkably, considering the depth and duration of his alcoholism, Williams remembers exact dates — the day he went to prison for the first time, the day he overdosed on Oxycontin and almost died, the dates of evictions from various apartments, and the day a judge in Baltimore County Circuit Court told him he was free to go.

It was Nov. 30, 2009 when Judge Ruth Jakubowski declared, with the state’s attorney’s support, that Hubert James Williams Jr. had had nothing to do with the shooting of a bartender and patron in the botched robbery of the Amber Lounge in Essex in October 1997. Williams had been wrongly imprisoned for attempted second-degree murder.

That conclusion had been reached after a police corporal passed along a tip to a veteran Baltimore County detective, Phil Marll. Marll had been involved in the original investigation of the Amber Lounge shooting. In August 2009, he reopened the case and soon discovered that another man — incarcerated for a separate crime at the time of Marll’s second investigation — had been the shooter. It was the detective’s report to the Baltimore County State’s Attorney that confirmed Williams’ innocence.

“Mr. Williams,” Judge Jakubowski said, “I’m going to grant your request, the petition that you just filed for writ of actual innocence. Do you understand?”

“Yes, your honor,” he answered.

The hearing was brief. An assistant state’s attorney asked that Williams be immediately released from the Division of Corrections. The judge wished him good luck.

Williams had been imprisoned for 11 years, 11 months and nine days for a crime he did not commit. He walked out of the courtroom and started to cry. He had no clothing but what he wore, no cash or savings, and no help making the transition home. A police officer gave Williams $4 for the MTA bus ride to his mother’s house in Middle River.

And now, nearly 10 years after being exonerated, and at the age of 67, he awaits compensation for his lost years. The Maryland Board of Public Works has his request, along with those of at least four other men who have been cleared of charges that sent them to prison, some for more than 20 years and one for nearly 40. But the board — composed of the governor, comptroller and state treasurer — has not acted. In fact, it has not awarded compensation for a wrongful imprisonment since 2004, though there have been several exonerations since then, and a total of 31 since 1989.

I met Williams the other day at a nursing facility in Prince George’s County. His Veterans Administration caseworker had sent him there. Williams has been off the Steel Reserve 211 and Natty Daddy since early April. “I’m trying to learn to function without alcohol,” he said.

He lives on $1,035 a month in disability benefits; the VA considers him unemployable. Kristen Lloyd and Andrew George, serving pro bono as his attorneys, have asked the state for $1.2 million — a level of compensation, they say, that is commensurate with earlier awards and with national practice — “to be held in trust for his care.” They asked the Board of Public Works to expedite the claim because of Williams’ poor health, periods of homelessness and incidents of physical assault.

As the lawyers tell it, James Williams has had an “altogether tragic life” that included physical abuse by an alcoholic father and sexual abuse by a neighbor when Williams was a child, drug addiction and alcoholism and, after his Navy years, a conviction for the second-degree murder of a friend’s ex-wife — a crime Williams apparently committed while intoxicated. He claimed he could not remember the crime, but pleaded guilty to it in 1975 and served 22 years in prison. His attorneys say he was assaulted, suffered a stroke and twice attempted suicide while incarcerated.

When he came out in 1997, Williams managed to find work in a lumberyard and made an effort to lead a stable life. But that ended when two people who claimed to have seen the Amber Lounge gunman picked Williams out of a photo array. Police arrested him in January 1998 and charged him with two counts of attempted second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and went on trial. The state’s case turned on eyewitness identification. A jury found Williams guilty, and a judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison.

Nearly 12 years later, Marll, the now-retired detective, determined that Williams was the wrong man, and Jakubowski declared him innocent. In 2017, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger certified that Williams had been wrongfully convicted, making him eligible for compensation under state law.

The matter of money for lost years — for James Hubert Williams Jr. and others so exonerated — needs to be settled. It will be costly. It’s the cost of justice.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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