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L-R (top) Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson,. L-R (bottom) Hubert James Williams Jr. and Clarence Shipley Jr., have all been exonerated of crimes and seek compensation from the state for decades of wrongful incarceration.
L-R (top) Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson,. L-R (bottom) Hubert James Williams Jr. and Clarence Shipley Jr., have all been exonerated of crimes and seek compensation from the state for decades of wrongful incarceration. (staff / Baltimore Sun)

Five men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for decades in Maryland will receive compensation from the state valued at about $9 million under a plan approved Wednesday.

The Board of Public Works awarded payments of $78,916 per year served by the men, who were released and declared innocent. Board members arrived at the dollar figure because it represents a 5-year average of the state’s median household income.

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Democratic state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said the payments represent “a very small token” to address the pain and suffering the men endured at the hands of the state’s justice system.

“These are men who spent thousands of days, thousands of mornings in prison,” Kopp said. “There’s no way we can sufficiently apologize. ... They were terribly wronged and I apologize."

Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot called the justice system “broken” and said he hoped the board’s vote would bring some “solace” to the men.

Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams have been pushing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the other two members of the board to compensate them for their years lost to prison. They spent a combined 120 years behind bars.

None appeared before the spending panel Wednesday.

Lomax, who served 38 years on a murder conviction before a judge released him in 2006, is in line to receive about $3 million, which is the largest such payment to an exoneree ever made by the state.

The deal was reached after overcoming a snag for some of the men: a requirement that they sign a form releasing the state from liability in their cases, which would mean they couldn’t pursue litigation.

Jerome Johnson, for instance, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department, alleging officers suppressed evidence of his innocence. Though it is funded by the city and its police commissioner is appointed by the mayor, the Baltimore Police Department is technically a state agency.

However, Neel Lalchandani of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, which represents Johnson and Shipley, said Tuesday evening his clients had reached an agreement with the state that the release from liability does not apply to the Baltimore Police Department or the city of Baltimore.

“Mr. Johnson can proceed with his claims against the Baltimore Police Department and its officers,” Lalchandani said.

Under the terms of the agreement, Jerome Johnson will receive $2.3 million for his 30 years in prison and Shipley will receive $2.1 million for his 27 years behind bars.

“Nothing is going to make up for the 57 combined years Jerome Johnson and Clarence Shipley spent in prison,” Lalchandani said. “This does present some recognition from the state of their suffering. These payments will provide at least some assistance to help them move forward with the rest of their lives.”

Lawyer Geoffrey Derrick said his client, Lamar Johnson, has been offered $953,672 for his nearly 13 years in prison and was eager to accept. Derrick said Lamar Johnson has no plans to pursue a lawsuit and is ready to move on with his life. Jerome Johnson and Lamar Johnson are not related.

“The amount compensates Lamar for all the time he served in prison,” Derrick said. “I’m ecstatic the state of Maryland has chosen a compensation level that is on the higher end of the national average. It’s going to give folks like Lamar an opportunity to start their lives over.”

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Lawyers for Williams said he would receive about $900,000, paid out over two years.

In November 2009, a judge concluded Williams, now 67, had nothing to do with a barroom robbery in Essex in 1997. He had spent nearly 12 years in prison before a Baltimore County detective took a second look at the crime and determined officers 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.

Shipley, 47; Jerome Johnson, 51; and Lamar Johnson, 36 were each convicted of murder in Baltimore and spent 27, 30 and 13 years in prison, respectively. Lomax’s conviction in Baltimore was vacated in 2014.

State lawmakers pressed the board to move forward quickly with giving the men compensation. Fifty legislators signed a letter in August saying it is “critical for the state to recognize the harm inflicted upon each wrongfully convicted Marylander and to help the innocent men rebuild their lives.” Each of the men has faced serious problems returning to society, the lawmakers said.

Williams has been homeless for long periods since his release.

Derrick said the first payments to the men would come within 30 days at a value of $78,916. The rest of the payments would come over the next five years.

“He’s very happy with the amount ... ," Derrick said of Lamar Johnson. "He’s a young man. He’s only 36 years old. He’s excited to use the money to start a business.”

The governor has faulted the Democratic-controlled General Assembly for not passing legislation that would guide how much should be paid to exonerees. A bill 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 during the 2018 session but failed in the Senate. Reintroduced in this year’s session, the bill did not advance.

The Board of Public Works, 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.

Hogan was represented Wednesday at the Board of Public Works by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. The governor, comptroller and treasurer make up the three-member panel.

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