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Maryland’s wrongfully convicted call for approving legislation dealing with jailhouse informants and exoneree compensation | COMMENTARY

Walter Lomax, 67, left, at the Mitchell Courthouse with his attorneys after having his name formally cleared. Mr. Lomax was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 39 years before being released in December 2006.
Walter Lomax, 67, left, at the Mitchell Courthouse with his attorneys after having his name formally cleared. Mr. Lomax was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 39 years before being released in December 2006.(Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Imagine being convicted and imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit. You are separated from your family and friends, watching them hurt as you suffer the agony of prison life. You miss years — often decades — of holidays, birthdays, funerals and ordinary moments that most people take for granted. If you refuse to give up, the day may come when you can prove your innocence.

All of us exonerated in Maryland have lived a version of this story. While the circumstances of our cases may differ, we all share the experience of wrongful conviction. We also share a sense of duty to change the system that unjustly took our freedom and continues to deny many of us fair compensation.

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Maryland lawmakers can make sure that what we’ve gone through doesn’t happen again. There is plenty of work ahead, but the legislature should start with two issues this session: preventing wrongful convictions involving jailhouse informants and fixing the exoneree compensation law.

More needs to be done to protect the innocent on the front end of the criminal justice system. Maryland already has tackled some of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, including eyewitness identification and false confessions, but the testimony of jailhouse witnesses also needs to be addressed.

Lies told by jailhouse witnesses resulted in two of us — Demitrus Smith and Clarence Shipley — spending a combined 32 years in prison. In both cases, the jailhouse witnesses lied in court in exchange for reduced charges in their own cases. Prosecutors are required under the constitution to tell the defense about deals and other discrediting evidence on these witnesses. That didn’t happen, so the judge and jury never heard about their motivations to lie.

There needs to be more transparency and scrutiny around the use of jailhouse witnesses, who have clear motives to lie. Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery County) and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles County) have filed legislation that would require state’s attorneys’ offices to centrally track jailhouse witness testimony and benefits (S.B. 534/H.B. 637). That way, prosecutors will have more complete information on their history and reliability before putting them on the stand. If the state’s Attorney decides to use the testimony, the defense would be able to do a more effective cross examination and expose credibly issues. Similar measures have been adopted in Texas, Nebraska, Connecticut and Illinois.

The state also needs to fix the broken exoneree compensation law. When we left prison, we had to rebuild our lives. Some of us had family and friends who could help with basics like housing, transportation and food; others did not. After losing the years when most people are building careers and saving money, financial survival is a struggle.

Maryland’s compensation law was supposed to help repair the damage of our wrongful convictions, but most of us haven’t gotten a dime. The criteria is so strict that even DNA exonerees are excluded.

For the few of us who have been compensated, the process was long and difficult. The Board of Public Works is supposed to pay, but the law doesn’t say how much or how quickly it should act. In October, the board finally agreed to pay five exonerees, most of whom had been waiting for more than a year for an answer. That’s because the law provides almost no guidance to the board which typically deals with public works funding, not wrongful convictions.

Sen. Delores Kelly (D-Baltimore) and Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County) are sponsoring legislation (Senate Bill 797/House Bill 985) to put Maryland’s law in line with exoneree compensation measures that have worked well in other states. The legislation provides a set amount of money for each year of wrongful incarceration based on the state’s median household income. Judges, rather than the Board of Public Works, would be assigned to review claims and there would be clear standards and deadlines for eligibility determinations.

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We hope that something meaningful can come out of our experiences. The state of Maryland cannot change what happened to us, but it can fix the system for the future. In 2020, state lawmakers can — and should — do the right thing for the wrongfully convicted.

Walter Lomax spent 38 years in prison for a Baltimore murder he did not commit and was exonerated in 2014. Clarence Shipley spent 27 years in prison for a Baltimore murder he did not commit and was exonerated in 2018. Eric Simmons spent 24 years in prison for a Baltimore murder he did not commit and was exonerated last year.

Also contributing to this op-ed were Jerome Johnson, who spent 30 years in prison for a murder in Baltimore he did not commit and was exonerated in 2018; Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sentenced to death and spent nine years in prison for a Baltimore murder he did not commit until he was exonerated in 1993; and Ransom Watkins and Alfred Chestnut, who spent 36 years in prison as co-defendants in a Baltimore murder case and were exonerated last year. The exonorees can be reached at info@innocenceproject.org.

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