Gov. Larry Hogan proposed Wednesday using administrative law judges to revive the state’s practice of awarding payments to wrongly incarcerated individuals ― an action the state hasn’t taken in 15 years.
Under pressure from lawmakers to act on the cases of five men who collectively spent more than 100 years behind bars, the Republican governor said he believed administrative law judges are better qualified than the Board of Public Works ― which he chairs ― to determine how much to pay the former inmates.
Hogan also blamed Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature for not mandating specific payments for the men.
“Our administration will work with the board to seek out an appropriate third party ― such as administrative law judges ― that is better equipped to handle these cases and make determinations about compensation,” Hogan wrote in a letter to House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat.
Hogan’s proposal was a response to a letter Tuesday from Jones and 49 other delegates in which the lawmakers urged the board, which serves as the state’s spending panel, to approve payments to the men.
In a letter to Hogan and his fellow board members — Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, both Democrats — Jones and her colleagues wrote that they “respectfully request that the Board of Public Works promptly resolve the pending petitions for compensation filed by individuals wrongly incarcerated in Maryland.” The letter was signed mostly by Democrats, but included a few Republican lawmakers, including William Wivell of Washington County and Kevin Hornberger of Cecil County.
Lawyers representing the five men have asked the board to award $100,000 to each man for each year he spent behind bars. That would total about $12 million.
“Five petitioners — Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams — spent a combined 120 years in Maryland prisons for crimes they did not commit,” the delegates’ letter states. “Maryland judges and prosecutors have deemed these men as actually innocent, and in accordance with state law, each petitioned the Board of Public Works for compensation.”
The letter said each of the men has suffered and faces serious problems returning to society.
“Mr. Williams, the first to file his petition (in January 2018) after his innocence was confirmed by the Baltimore County Circuit Court and state’s attorney, has been homeless for large stretches of time since his release,” the letter states.
In November 2009, a judge concluded Williams, now 67, had nothing to do with a barroom robbery in Essex in 1997. He spent nearly 12 years in prison before a county detective took a second look at the crime and determined officers had arrested the wrong man. On the day the judge set him free, Williams walked out of the courthouse with only the $4 an officer gave him for a bus ride home.
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. The fifth man, Lomax, served 38 years on a murder conviction before a judge released him in 2006. His conviction was vacated in 2014. He, like the others, is still waiting for the board to act on his request for compensation.
In interviews after a board meeting Wednesday, Franchot and Kopp also said the General Assembly didn’t pass legislation this year that would have required the payments and set parameters for how much should be awarded to each man. The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Del. Kathleen Dumais of Montgomery County, would have required the state pay at least $50,000 for every year an individual was wrongfully incarcerated. It passed the House of Delegates 120-17, but failed in the Senate.
Nevertheless, Kopp and Franchot said they wanted the board to move forward with compensation.
“We should move,” Kopp said. “These are such extraordinary cases, we hope. If the theory is that we will find many more cases [of wrongful convictions], then we should find them and we should act on them.”
Franchot said the board’s staff was working to determine compensation amounts. He said he wanted to approve payments that are “fair” and “fiscally responsible.”
Susan O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Franchot, said the comptroller’s staff is in talks with the governor’s staff and the treasurer’s staff about how to move forward. Franchot, she said, wants to achieve "a compassionate and responsible solution for these innocent victims.”
In Hogan’s letter, the governor said the “pain and indignities experienced by innocent individuals for crimes they did not commit is unimaginable and they deserve to be justly compensated as they work to rebuild their lives.”
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But, the governor said, he does not believe the board is the “appropriate venue” to handle such cases because it lacks the “expertise, capacity [and] personnel” to make determinations about damages and pain and suffering.
The board, which has the authority to pay wrongfully imprisoned people, last made such a payment in 2004. That year, under Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the board approved $1.4 million for Michael Austin, who spent nearly 27 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. In 2003, Bernard Webster, who served 20 years for a rape he did not commit, got $900,000 for his 20 years in prison, and, in 1994, Kirk Bloodsworth, who was wrongly convicted of murder, got $300,000 for the 10 years he served in prison.
Jones, in her first year as the new House speaker, urged quick action from the board on the new cases.
“Every day, we ask Marylanders to take responsibility for their actions," Jones said in a statement. "That is why it is appropriate and important that the state takes responsibility for incarcerating innocent people for decades. Just as we seek justice for victims of crime, we should also seek justice for those wronged by the criminal court system.”
Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who drafted the letter and encouraged fellow delegates to sign it, said she doesn’t want the board to wait another day before compensating the men for their years behind bars.
“They lost so much time with their lives. The state made a huge mistake and needs to compensate them for that mistake,” Hettleman said. “It’s really a travesty to wait a day or even an hour longer.”
Neel Lalchandani of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, which represents two of the men, said several of them have been waiting for more than a year for compensation.