But he felt duty-bound to try to help an innocent man.
“This Board has been asked under our state finance and procurement article to value days, to value time spent behind bars, to value time spent behind bars for no reason, for inappropriate reasons, for unlawful reasons,” Ehrlich (R) said while chairing a 2004 Board of Public Works hearing.
The panel agreed to pay Austin $1.4 million over 10 years — $143 a day for each day he was in prison.
The award was equivalent to $194 per day in today’s dollars, or $70,810 a year. It was the largest — and the last — award the state has made to an exoneree.
Now a different Republican governor has balked at having the Board of Public Works decide awards for five men who collectively spent 120 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Gov. Larry Hogan says the three-person board is not equipped to decide how much to give the men, who are seeking $100,000 for each year they spent behind bars.
Under pressure from dozens of state lawmakers, months after the men filed their petitions, Hogan asked Maryland’s chief administrative law judge last week to work with the board’s general counsel to put in place a procedure to pay Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley Jr. and Hubert James Williams.
Maryland has paid out about $3 million to seven exonerees since the General Assembly passed a law allowing such compensation in 1963, according to a Board of Public Works official.
The statute authorized the Board of Public Works “in its discretion” to award compensation to people who received a full pardon from the governor stating their convictions were in error.
The award was $10 for each day behind bars. Later, the statute was amended to allow payments of $20 a day.
In 1977, the General Assembly deleted the dollar amount and authorized the board to award a sum “commensurate with the actual damages sustained as a result of the confinement.”
Exonerees still had to receive a full gubernatorial pardon before they could petition the state for compensation.
Along with Austin, the Board of Public Works awarded settlements in 2003 to Bernard Webster, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and served 19 years and eight months in prison; and in 1994 to Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted of murder, sexual assault and rape, sentenced to death and served nine years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.
Webster received $900,000 in 20 semiannual installments — about $125 for each day behind bars, and Bloodsworth was given a $300,000 lump sum payment — an amount equivalent to about $92 per day of imprisonment.
Michelle Nethercott, an attorney who represented Webster, said she lost contact with him several years ago. She said her client had little family support when he was released from prison, and friends and acquaintances “suddenly appeared” after his settlement seeking money, making it difficult for Webster to adjust to his freedom.
Bloodsworth was the first person on death row cleared by DNA in the United States. After his exoneration, he helped lead the effort to end capital punishment in Maryland.
He now works as the executive director of Witness to Innocence, an advocacy organization in Philadelphia.
Bloodsworth said the state can never pay enough to make up for imprisoning him and the other exonerees without cause. He said the board considered the salary he made as a crab fisherman before his arrest in deciding how much to compensate him.
After paying off legal bills and other debts, he said, he was left with about $100,000 to help him launch his post-prison life.
“I have a job now, make a salary, I’m doing my thing,” he said.
But he will never feel as though the state has fully paid of its debt.
Before those settlements, the board gave $250,000 in 1987 to Leslie Vass, who was convicted of armed robbery in 1975. Cornell Avery Estes was awarded $16,500 after serving less than a year on a wrongful murder conviction.
Vass and Estes were pardoned by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes (D); Bloodsworth was pardoned by then-Gov. William D. Schaefer (D); and Webster was pardoned by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).
Former governor Martin O’Malley (D), who served from 2007 to 2015, did not compensate any exonerees during his two terms; the state Department of Corrections says it does not have records showing how many exonerees requested compensation over the years.
Jeffrey S. Gutman, co-director of the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics at George Washington University Law School, said he suspects the biggest barrier to exonerees filing for compensation was the long-standing requirement that they get a gubernatorial pardon before they could make such a request.
In 2017, the General Assembly made the process less onerous, eliminating the requirement for a gubernatorial pardon so long as an exoneree received a writ of innocence from a state prosecutor.
The General Assembly has also considered bills in recent years detailing how much exonerees should be paid. But that legislation was blocked by lawmakers, who said the bills were too vague and potentially too expensive.
Ehrlich pardoned Austin after receiving a letter from Joseph J. Wase, who prosecuted Austin’s case, according to news reports from that time. In the letter, Wase wrote that he did not intend to prosecute an innocent man, “as I now realize I did.”
At his hearing before the Board of Public Works, Austin barely mentioned his time behind bars. Instead, according to a transcript, he talked about his efforts to motivate and educate young people and his plans to record a CD with his newly formed jazz band.
He also thanked the governor for expressing regret at the wrongful conviction.
“There is not enough money to compensate me for 27 years,” said Austin, who had a scar across his right cheek inflicted by a fellow inmate, a lasting reminder of his ordeal.
“But the fact, Mr. Ehrlich, that you called me from my lawyer’s office and you extend a hand to me and apologize to me for the time spent, that meant a lot to me,” he continued. “That allowed me to feel a sense of power again, because for 27 years I was in a state of helplessness and I had no one, you know, to understand.”