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Maryland exoneree suffers heart attack before testifying on compensation bill

Walter Lomax in his office in Baltimore in July. Since his release from prison for a crime he did not commit, he has been an advocate for social justice issues.
Walter Lomax in his office in Baltimore in July. Since his release from prison for a crime he did not commit, he has been an advocate for social justice issues. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Walter Lomax, who spent 39 years of his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, was about to testify before a Maryland Senate committee Wednesday when he slumped over and his heart stopped beating.

The nearest defibrillator wasn’t working. So while another one was located, a state trooper and the Frederick County sheriff administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation for 9½ minutes — probably saving Lomax’s life, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said Thursday.

Since his release from prison in 2006, Lomax has been a champion for parole reform. He is one of five wrongly convicted men who collectively spent 120 years in prison and were awarded $9 million in compensation last year after a lengthy battle with the state.

The bill he was set to testify about on Wednesday would codify the compensation process so that other exonerees get paid more easily, at a set rate based on the state’s average median income over five years.

Sen. Dolores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor of the bill, said the hearing was the culmination of much of Lomax’s life work: ensuring that other exonerees did not have to fight to be compensated for wrongful conviction. He collapsed while talking to a reporter.

“The whole room was somber” during the hearing, Kelly said. “All we knew was that his heart stopped for minutes. . . . That was all we knew at the time.”

Meet the five wrongly convicted men who together spent 120 years in prison

Trooper Luke Rafer said he was notified of a medical emergency on the third floor of the Miller Senate Building just before noon. He sprinted up a flight of stairs and saw Sheriff Chuck Jenkins performing chess compressions on Lomax. Another person was checking for a pulse. There wasn’t any.

Jenkins had been working on Lomax for four minutes when Rafer took over. He pressed Lomax’s chest. Still no pulse. More minutes passed and finally, Rafer said, he heard a young woman say: “I feel something.”

Another person — a doctor, Rafer thinks — used a working AED to shock Lomax. Meanwhile, the trooper continued chest compressions until the ambulance arrived.

“To actually see him coming back,” Rafer said, shaking his head and smiling. “I just kept thinking, I’ve got to keep the heart going.”

Lomax, 72, was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, where he underwent surgery. Ferguson visited him that evening.

“It’s just pretty special and amazing,” Ferguson told his colleagues in the Senate chamber on Thursday. “And you all will appreciate, in the hospital bed, he’s just had a heart attack and had surgery, and now he’s awake and lucid, and says, ‘You just really got to pass that bill.’ ”

“So I think he’s going to recover well.”

Lomax was released from prison after a judge ruled that his defense lawyer was ineffective. He then launched the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that works on social justice issues.

In 2014, the Baltimore City prosecutor, armed with new evidence of faulty witnesses and official misconduct, signed a writ of innocence, which vacated the charges against Lomax and enabled him to petition for compensation.

But state officials did not immediately act on the petition, saying there was not a clear enough process in state law for how much to award exonerees.

After pressure from advocates and dozens of state lawmakers, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the Board of Public Works voted in the fall to approve the compensation for Lomax and four others. They are getting $78,916 for each year they spent in prison. Lomax’s $3 million award will be paid in four installments, through July 2021.

Rafer, who turned 24 on Thursday, was recognized in the chamber by Ferguson that morning and given a standing ovation.

“A heck of a birthday,” he said in an interview. “I’m just glad he’s all right. I just wish I knew the doctor’s name, I wish I knew the young girl’s name. . . . I wish I knew who they were so they could get some kind of recognition.”

Meet the five wrongly convicted men awarded millions of dollars by Maryland

They spent 120 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Will Maryland compensate them?

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