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Md. must compensate exonerees for years stolen from them

Clarence Shipley Jr. has been released after spending 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)

After spending more than 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Clarence Shipley spent the holidays at home last month. On Dec. 18th, he was cleared of all charges by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). He joins the ranks of three other men who have been exonerated in Baltimore City through the CIU since 2016.

Incarcerated at the age of 20 and now 47 years old, Mr. Shipley missed many years in the prime of his life, including the death of one of his children in a tragic house fire and the birth of his grandchild. Those losses, thrust upon him by a system that failed to deliver justice, are now compounded by the fact that there is currently no clear path to compensation for such damage in the state of Maryland.

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Yet in many ways, Mr. Shipley is lucky. He came home to a supportive family that is able to help him re-enter a society that is vastly different than the one he left three decades ago. Exonerees are released after serving what is oftentimes decades in prison without as much as a birth certificate or photo identification. They struggle to secure what many of us take for granted: health insurance, money for food, public transportation, and even housing.

While the conviction will be formally erased from Mr. Shipley’s record, the state can do nothing to make up for the 27-year gap in his work experience as he is now faced with finding a job. Struggling to meet basic needs is not a burden that exonerees and their families should shoulder after already having endured decades of wrongful imprisonment. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office has apologized to Mr. Shipley, but now the state must do more. The state needs to provide compensation.

Maryland law provides a theoretical pathway to compensation for exonerees, but actually receiving it is virtually impossible. The Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW) has the discretion to grant compensation only if an exoneree has either been given a full pardon by the governor or certification from the state’s attorney pursuant to a Writ of Actual Innocence. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 19 exonerations in Maryland since 2004, but according to data provided by the Board of Public Works in 2017, no exoneree has been compensated since Michael Austin was pardoned by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2004.

The Maryland legislature has recognized the state’s responsibility to compensate the exonerated and aid in the restoration of their lives. During the 2018 legislative session, the Task Force to Study Erroneous Conviction and Imprisonment​ recommended, among other things, that the Board of Public Works be required to compensate those who have been wrongfully convicted. The Task Force’s proposed amendments to House Bill 1225 and its companion, Senate Bill 987, would have provided eligible exonerees with at least $50,000 compensation for each year that they were in custody, in addition to providing compensation for living expenses, health insurance, job training and education.

Unfortunately, the legislation was never brought to a vote in the Senate last session. When the legislature convenes for the 2019 legislative session, compensation should be a top priority. Unfortunately, no one can give back to these exonerees the years stolen from them, but we can alleviate the stress of how they will rebuild over the next several years by providing the compensation they deserve. Mr. Shipley waited far too long for his freedom, he shouldn’t have to wait for compensation too.

Brianna Ford is a clinical teaching fellow and staff attorney at the Innocence Project Clinic within the University of Baltimore School of Law. Her email is bford@ubalt.edu.

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