The Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously approved the payments for the wrongful incarcerations, including $3 million, the largest such settlement in state history, for Lomax.
“I hope that they understand that this is their community’s way of recognizing that not only were they innocent but they were terribly, terribly wronged,” said Kopp (D), one of the three members of the Board of Public Works. “And, I apologize.”
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), filling in as board chair for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), described the vote as a “just and rightful close” for the exonerees. It was the first time in 15 years that Maryland agreed to compensate any former prisoner for being wrongly convicted.
In states that have laws allowing compensation for exonerees, the average award is about $68,000 per year spent in prison, according to George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Gutman, who studies compensation for the wrongly convicted.
Before Wednesday’s vote, Maryland’s average compensation was about $47,000 for each year of incarceration. The state’s process for allowing such payments has been slightly modified over the years to be less complex, but the General Assembly has failed to pass a law setting specific compensation amounts, and the Board of Public Works has been slow to act on petitions.
“The Maryland law is very out of step,” said Michelle Feldman, the state campaigns director at the New York-based Innocence Project.
Lomax, Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson, Clarence Shipley Jr. and Hubert James Williams filed their petitions over the past 20 months.
The men sought $100,000 a year for each year they were in prison. Several states, including Connecticut, Minnesota, New York and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia, have paid an average well over that amount.
Maryland agreed to pay the men a per-year sum of $78,916, a five-year average of the state’s median income.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) said the board used that formula because “these five men were deprived of the opportunity to have a household and the opportunity to gain an income and make contributions to their communities and to our state.”
He said he hopes the General Assembly will adopt a similar formula to apply to exonerees in the future.
Before the vote, Franchot, who is considering a 2022 run for governor, called the exonerees by name, saying they were “all victims of a broken criminal justice system.”
Kopp described the compensation, which ranged from $903,560 for Williams to $3,026,840 to Lomax, as a “very small token of the heartfelt apologies of the state and all of our citizens.”
None of the men or their attorneys attended Wednesday’s meeting.
But Lomax said in an interview that he was touched by Kopp’s “very heartfelt” words and the acknowledgment by Franchot that “something needed to be done.”
Even before his release in 2006, Lomax started a parole reform initiative for inmates and former inmates — the Lifers Coalition. He has built that effort into the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, where he serves as executive director.
He said the settlement will allow him for the first time in his life to put the 39 years of incarceration behind him.
“I’m still connected to what happened to me in the past,” he said. “I will finally be able to put this whole saga, this whole ordeal, behind me.”
Lomax was convicted of killing a grocery store night manager in Baltimore in 1968. A judge later ruled his defense lawyer was ineffective and failed to offer evidence in court that could have proved Lomax was innocent.
In the interview, Lomax said he always personally felt vindicated “because I knew I hadn’t committed the crime . . . and the most important people in my life knew I was innocent.”
Among them was his sister, Carolyn, who fought until she died in 2015 to see him receive justice, Lomax said. She lived long enough to see his verdict set aside and the granting of a “writ of actual innocence” from the Baltimore City state’s attorney in 2014. He said he is haunted that his sister did not witness Wednesday’s vote.
Lomax lives in East Baltimore. He plans to use the money, which will be paid in installments through July 2021, to provide a better life for his family — two grown children, seven grandchildren and a growing coterie of great-grandchildren.
“Each generation since I’ve been born have had to struggle to get by in life,” Lomax said, adding that his sister suffered with no heat in her home while she juggled bills. He said he has talked with his daughter about creating generational wealth for his children and the future children in his family.
“We’re not giving money away. I’m talking about creating situations where [subsequent] generations won’t have the struggle that we had,” he said.
Lamar Johnson said he wants to launch a real estate business, purchasing homes, rehabilitating them and renting them. First purchase: a home for his mother.
Williams, who has struggled with substance abuse and had bouts of homelessness, will be able to use the money to find stable housing and treatment, his lawyers said.
Asked this summer what compensation from the state would mean, Shipley said, his voice cracking: “Not only would it help me, it would help my family. My family still lives in the projects, still struggling. It would do a lot for me.”
The awards include an additional $10,000 for each man to use for counseling.
“Even though no dollar amount can restore what was stolen from them,” Franchot said, “I hope that today’s action brings some solace and sense of vindication to these five individuals.”