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No more delays — Maryland must compensate those it wrongly imprisoned

When an inmate is released from prison, we often say he has paid his debt to society. But when Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams were released, it was society that owed them.

All five had been convicted of crimes they did not commit, and collectively they served 120 years behind bars. Their innocence is not in question. In all five cases, local prosecutors have agreed that they did not commit the crimes for which they were imprisoned, and judges confirmed their innocence.

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Nor was the finding of guilt against them an innocent mistake. Through incompetence, a rush to judgment or outright malice, the state is complicit in all their false convictions.

Hubert James Williams Jr. was exonerated after spending 12 years in prison for an attempted murder he did not commit.
Hubert James Williams Jr. was exonerated after spending 12 years in prison for an attempted murder he did not commit. (Baltimore Sun/BSMG)

Mr. Williams received a 100-year sentence for attempted murder and other crimes in connection with a 1987 shooting in an Essex bar. He was convicted based on the testimony of a victim who initially identified him in a photo array but later said he wasn’t sure, and of another victim who did not identify him in the lineup but later said she thought his voice sounded like the shooter. Another man claimed Mr. Williams had confessed to him (and got leniency on his own pending charges in exchange for his testimony). But the detective who worked the case never bought Mr. Williams’ guilt, and nearly a decade after the initial crime, he found the real killer.

Lamar Johnson received a writ of actual innocence in 2017 after 13 years in prison.
Lamar Johnson received a writ of actual innocence in 2017 after 13 years in prison. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Lamar Johnson was convicted in the 2004 murder of Carlos Sawyer, mainly based on the testimony of two teenage witnesses who identified him from a tainted photo lineup — among other flaws, his picture was larger than the other five. One witness wasn’t wearing her glasses when she saw the killing and didn’t see the gunman’s face anyway. The other identified Mr. Johnson but contradicted herself, saying she had never seen the gunman before but had known Mr. Johnson for years.

Clarence Shipley Jr., right, spent 27 years in jail after being convicted for a murder he did not commit.
Clarence Shipley Jr., right, spent 27 years in jail after being convicted for a murder he did not commit. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

When police were investigating the murder of Kevin Smith in 1991, they had a suspect — Larry Davis. But they put the wrong Larry Davis in a photo array. They later found the right Larry Davis in jail, but by then they had fixated on a different suspect, Clarence Shipley. He had multiple alibi witnesses, but he was convicted based on the testimony of Smith’s brother and another man who claimed Mr. Shipley had robbed him that night, even though he recanted on the witness stand. Investigators eventually found evidence that Davis (who died in 2005) had been the gunman in a conspiracy with Smith’s brother.

Jerome Johnson was exonerated after spending 30 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
Jerome Johnson was exonerated after spending 30 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Jerome Johnson was convicted of the 1988 murder of Alvin Hill based entirely on the testimony of the victim’s 15-year-old cousin whose initial statement to police didn’t mention Mr. Johnson at all. She later added him into what became a wildly contradictory story on the witness stand. Police and prosecutors did not disclose a wide variety of discrepancies between her initial statement and her later testimony.

Walter Lomax, left, was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 39 years before being released in December 2006.
Walter Lomax, left, was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 39 years before being released in December 2006. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Mr. Lomax’s conviction in the 1967 murder of Robert Brewer may be the most egregious. There had been several highly publicized murders in Baltimore at the time, and police were pulling young black men into a procession of line-ups. Three witnesses (all white) identified him as the killer in the Brewer murder, and police charged him despite the fact that it was physically impossible for him to have committed the crime. The witnesses described the killer as having carried bags of groceries in each hand before the murder, but Mr. Lomax’s right hand was severely injured and covered in a cast at the time. (It had in fact been re-dressed that very day.) The police claimed that ballistics analysis connected him with other murders all across town, but no such analysis was ever performed.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones and 49 of her colleagues, including members of both parties, wrote this week to Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp urging them to use their power as members of the Board of Public Works to provide compensation for these five men. We join their call. The state of Maryland did incalculable harm to these five men, but the most any have gotten is an apology and $4 in bus fare. We owe them much more than that.

In response to the letter, Mr. Hogan said he supports the idea of compensation for the men but faulted the legislature for failing to enact legislation to implement a task force’s recommendations on how to award compensation and added that the Board of Public Works lacks the capacity to handle the matter on its own. But the board has managed before, and it can again. Mr. Hogan, Mr. Franchot and Ms. Kopp have the power today to correct injustice. They should not delay.,

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