An East Baltimore man wrongfully convicted for a shooting he did not commit will receive compensation from the state for the 19 years he spent locked up before being freed in December 2020.
Compensation for many more people freed from Maryland prisons could follow soon once a recently approved change to state law takes effect in July.
Maryland will pay just over $1.6 million to Melvin Thomas, who was freed after spending nearly his entire adult life behind bars. Maryland’s Board of Public Works approved the compensation, which will be paid in a series of installments over the next five years, on Wednesday morning. The total amounts to $84,805 for each year Thomas wrongfully spent in prison.
Thomas declined to comment Wednesday through an attorney.
Others freed from Maryland prisons will have an easier path to claim compensation beginning July 1, when the Walter Lomax Act — passed unanimously by the General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan earlier this month — goes into effect. The act is named for an innocent Prince George’s County man who spent nearly 40 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit and then decades more fighting to receive compensation for the injustice.
The change removes several hurdles that have prevented others freed from prisons after their convictions were overturned from claiming compensation, including by eliminating strict eligibility rules that limit compensation only to people pardoned by the governor for innocence or given a so-called “writ of actual innocence” issued by a judge and approved by local prosecutors.
Critics have argued for years that the current system can be slow, cumbersome, unfair and “doesn’t actually require the government to compensate for anything,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
The Board of Public Works, a three-person panel made up of the governor, the state comptroller and state treasurer, currently decides whether and how much to pay exonerees — while local prosecutors can make it nearly impossible for wrongfully convicted people to claim compensation by simply refusing to certify innocence even if they can’t win a new conviction.
Thomas, like a number of other wrongfully convicted former prisoners from Baltimore, was exonerated through a partnership between a conviction integrity unit set up by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and nonprofit legal groups that work with some prisoners to prove their innocence. That partnership also made it much easier for exonerees from Baltimore — and for others from counties with similar programs — to qualify for compensation through the current system.
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At least 15 people wrongly convicted in Maryland have been denied compensation because they couldn’t obtain a pardon from the governor and local prosecutors refused to concede their innocence, according to the Innocence Project.
Under the new law, anyone wrongfully convicted would be eligible for compensation as long as prosecutors are unable to win a new conviction at a retrial. An administrative law judge — not the Board of Public Works — will then set a monetary award by multiplying the state’s current median household income by the number of years the individual spent incarcerated and the law sets a quick timeline for delivering the first installment.
Armbrust said the current years-long wait for compensation in Maryland makes it even harder for exonerated people to rebuild their lives outside of prison and “adds insult to injury” after having their freedom stolen by a false conviction.
The judge also can order other benefits, such as at least five years of health insurance, up to five years of housing assistance and help with education and vocational training. Exonerated individuals who were given compensation by the state before 2005 will be given the opportunity to apply for additional compensation under the new formulas. At least five exonerees will be able to make claims under that provision, according to the Innocence Project.
Thomas was freed after the man he allegedly shot outside an East Baltimore rowhouse bar in 2001 spotted the actual shooter years later at the Patapsco Flea Market in South Baltimore. The shooting victim, who survived two gunshots to the face, recanted his courtroom testimony that led to Thomas’ conviction and 65-year prison sentence for attempted murder and conspiracy, robbery and gun charges.