Maryland is on track to set clear guidelines for how to compensate people who have wrongly been convicted of crimes, the culmination of an emotional, multiyear effort by exonerees and their allies.
Until now, there’s been a confusing and sometimes political path for people to be granted compensation from the state for wrongly imprisoning them. Advocates say the system gives an advantage to people who have lawyers and who are willing to mount a campaign to win payments.
A clearer path will help individuals get money — and potentially health coverage and help with housing and education — so they can start to rebuild their lives, advocates say.
As of last week, the state Senate and House of Delegates have passed the bills on unanimous votes. All that’s left is for the measures to be passed by the other chamber before being sent to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration.
Hogan’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation moving forward in the General Assembly.
But the governor has blamed delays in payments in the past on state lawmakers, criticizing them in 2019 for not passing a law to mandate specific amounts. And he suggested involving administrative law judges in the process, a role included in the legislation.
An estimated 15 people who currently have not received compensation would qualify under the legislation. After that, the changes would benefit the one to two people typically exonerated each year.
“These people are waiting to be given back a little bit of what was taken from them,” said Nathan Erb, state policy director for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to free people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The Innocence Project, its clients and allies have trekked to Annapolis for years, trying to get lawmakers to set clearer rules. Current law authorizes — but does not require — the state Board of Public Works to make such awards, and it leaves the amount of the award open.
Last year, former inmate Walter Lomax nearly died waiting to give testimony before the state Senate. Lomax collapsed outside a hearing room and was revived by Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and Maryland State Police Trooper First Class Luke Rafer, who performed CPR. Lomax went to a hospital while his shaken colleagues continued with the hearing.
Lomax was convicted in 1968 of the fatal shooting of the night manager of a Brooklyn food market. His sentence was commuted in 2006 amid questions regarding evidence. In 2014, the conviction was wiped from his record. But it took until 2019 before the state awarded him compensation.
Lomax said nothing can make up for what happened to him and others like him. He said he carries scars from his decades in prison. But money can help in rebuilding a life broken by the justice system.
“What something like this does is it allows them the freedom to be able to live a quality of life like they want, and they don’t have to worry about the little things,” said Lomax, who lives in Prince George’s County.
While Lomax was in the hospital, Senate President Bill Ferguson visited and said Lomax made him promise to pass the bill. Lomax said he doesn’t recall that, but is pleased the General Assembly is passing the Walter Lomax Act now, after last year’s legislative session was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lomax said he’s proud that his advocacy will make things a bit smoother for those who come after him.
“It’s really great that they’ve finally done this, so that there can be a clearer path for anyone who comes behind us,” he said.
The legislation has been pushed for multiple years by Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Kelley, in presenting her bill, noted that the federal government, 35 states and the District of Columbia have laws that standardize compensation for exonerees. “The time is now for Maryland to do what is systematic, humane and just,” Kelley said.
Under the act, a person seeking compensation would file a petition with a state administrative law judge. That judge would issue an order for compensation if the person has been pardoned by the governor due to an erroneous conviction, their conviction was reversed or they were found not guilty on a retrial.
Currently, exonerees need a pardon from the governor or a writ of actual innocence issued by a judge and approved by a prosecutor to qualify for compensation.
Under the bill, the administrative judge would set a monetary award using a formula based on the current median household income, multiplied by the time the individual spent incarcerated. 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.
The state’s spending panel, the Board of Public Works, would be required to make an initial payment equal to one year of household income within 60 days of the judge’s order. The rest would be paid out over six years.
“This is going to be a much better system. Even though people had to wait, I hope it’s worth the wait,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
Over the past two years, the state has compensated 10 wrongly convicted individuals, after coming under pressure to act from innocence advocates and state lawmakers. It took more than a year after applying for some to receive compensation.
The bill also includes an opportunity for exonerated individuals who were given compensation from the state before 2005 to apply for additional compensation.
That may benefit individuals like Kirk Bloodsworth, a former waterman and Marine veteran who spent time on death row after being wrongly convicted of the murder of a child in Baltimore County. Bloodsworth, who has become an advocate for criminal justice reform, was freed after DNA evidence showed he did not commit the crime.
Bloodsworth wrote to lawmakers that the state paid him $300,000 in 1994, money he used up paying back his father for legal bills related to overturning the conviction.
Though he’s paid as the executive director of the group Witness to Innocence and works for a toolmaker, Bloodsworth wrote that he struggles financially with bills from cancer treatment and for caring for his aging father.
Bloodsworth wrote that there are five exonerees who are in his situation and they could benefit from extra financial help.
“I’m 60 years old,” Bloodsworth told lawmakers last month. “I was 23 when this started and I’m still trying to fight for the rights we should have had a long time ago. I can’t tell you how much this means to me and to all the other exonerees.”