The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a $1.4 million compensation package yesterday for Michael Austin, who spent almost 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
"Today is a day to rejoice and to say this is all behind me," Austin said shortly after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who has apologized to Austin, called him a man of "great dignity."
Austin was a 26-year-old iron factory worker when he was arrested in the 1974 murder of Roy Kellam, a security guard at a food store in Baltimore. Throughout his trial, conviction and prison term, Austin maintained his innocence. "I always believed I was going to get out," he said yesterday.
That happened in 2001, after Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit group, took up Austin's case and found numerous problems with his trial, including prosecutorial misconduct and an ill-prepared defense attorney.
In a story last month about how states compensate the wrongfully convicted, The Washington Post incorrectly reported that Austin was freed by DNA evidence.
The food store's manager was shown a group of pictures by police that had Austin's photograph in them but told investigators that the killer was not in the spread, according to court documents. He also did not pick Austin out of a police lineup.
The manager was never called to testify at the trial.
When the case was reopened in 2001, the manager testified that Austin was not involved in the crime. Ehrlich pardoned Austin last year.
Joe Wase, the prosecutor in the case, wrote in a letter to Ehrlich: "I did not intend to ever prosecute an innocent man, as I now realize I did."
In an emotional 11-page plea to the board, attorneys for Austin, who is now 56 and lives in Baltimore, detailed the horrors of prison, the ignominy of being branded a murderer and his often painful readjustment to life on the outside. While acknowledging that no amount could ever fully compensate Austin, his attorneys wrote that the money could "allow him the best opportunity possible to continue his rebound from this horrible experience." Austin has no pension, life insurance, investment in Social Security or medical coverage, they wrote.
Austin, who plays in a jazz band, said financial compensation will allow him "to be in a position I would have normally been in" had he never gone to jail. He said he plans to buy a house and invest the money, which he'll receive in 10 annual installments, for his retirement.
In 2003, the board, which is composed of the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer and approves large expenditures, granted $900,000 to Bernard Webster, who wrongly served almost 20 years for rape. Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit, received $300,000 in 1994.
Maryland is one of about 15 states that have compensation laws, as does the District. The formulas for payouts vary, and neither Maryland nor the District has specific guidelines on what constitutes a fair settlement. Alabama pays a minimum of $50,000 for every year the person spends behind bars. New Jersey pays up to $20,000 a year, or twice the salary the person was making before being arrested, whichever is greater.
Virginia, which passed a compensation law last year, pays the wrongfully convicted 90 percent of the state's per capita income, or about $30,000, for up to 20 years. Sponsors of the measure said they wanted a strict standard so that everyone is treated the same.
Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said this week that each case should be decided on its merits because each is different. State legislators have reviewed the compensation law in the recent past and decided to keep it essentially as is.
Austin described his prison sentence yesterday as "a horrendous ordeal." He saw prison fights, one in which "two guys were burned alive" on his tier, his attorneys wrote. Austin himself was stabbed once.
Still, Austin said yesterday that he harbors no ill will: "I'm happy with my life, and I'm moving on."