Two top Maryland officials on Wednesday pledged action to compensate five wrongly convicted men who were jailed for decades, but Gov. Larry Hogan said the state does not have the right system to determine the amount of such payments, which could exceed $12 million.
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who sit on the board with Hogan, said the panel should act to compensate Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley Jr. and Hubert James Williams, each of whom has petitioned the board over the past 18 months.
Such payments are allowed by Maryland law.
Franchot said his staff is working with Kopp’s and Hogan’s offices to address the issue; he could not provide a timeline for when it would be resolved. Kopp said the panel “should be moving on it.”
“We will come up with something that is fair and fiscally responsible,” Franchot said. “We’re going to do the right thing.”
The divide between Hogan and the Democrats could be pivotal in how and when awards are granted. Hogan chairs the Board of Public Works, which approves state contracts and settlements and oversees government spending. Board decisions are made by a simple majority, so Kopp and Franchot could approve the payments over objections from the governor. Kopp said she wanted to pursue that option, while Franchot could not be reached to address the possibility.
Hogan criticized the Democratic-majority General Assembly for failing to pass a bill with specific rules for compensating exonerees and said his administration would work with the board “to seek out an appropriate third party — such as Administrative Law Judges — that is better equipped to handle these cases.”
The Board of Public Works “does not have the expertise, capacity, or personnel to make determinations as to the damages incurred for each individual’s pain and suffering, including weighing factors surrounding the type of incarceration and the conditions of confinement,” Hogan said in a letter Wednesday afternoon.
He was responding to a letter from nearly 50 lawmakers, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), urging the board to compensate the men “without further delay.”
Maryland, one of 35 states that allow exonerees to be compensated, lags far behind in awarding such payments. The most recent award by the Board of Public Works was in 2004.
“They deserve better,” said Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), who initiated the letter from lawmakers after reading about the petitions in The Washington Post and other news media outlets.
Hettleman said the state needs to “own up to its mistake” of wrongfully convicting the men. “I think it’s really important that we not wait any longer,” she said. “They’ve already had so many years of their lives spent behind bars, their lives upended.”
During recent interviews, the exonerated men talked about what they missed during their incarceration and the difficulty of adjusting to freedom. Shipley was in prison when his 12-year-old son died in 2002. Williams has been homeless at times since his release, living in the woods in Takoma Park. Lamar Johnson lost his first job after his employer learned of his incarceration.
Maryland law says an award may be granted for “actual damages sustained by the individual,” but does not set a minimum or maximum amount. A 2018 task force recommended at least $50,000 per year of incarceration, with an additional $10,000 for living expenses and services such as education and health and dental care. The five men, who served a combined 120 years in prison, have sought payments totaling just over $12 million.
Legislation that would set rules for compensation has stalled in the state Senate. One of the recommendations from the task force was for the Board of Public Works to create the rules.
The number of exonerations throughout the country has risen steadily over the past three decades as the use of DNA testing by law enforcement officials has become more common, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Nearly three dozen wrongly convicted felons have been exonerated in Maryland. Nine have sought payment — and just three have received money.
Some Maryland lawmakers and members of the state task force have raised questions about the cost of compensating all who were wrongly jailed.
State Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), whose past bills to address compensation have died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said she will reintroduce the legislation in January. She said she wants the system revamped to ensure that no other person who is wrongly convicted has to wait for compensation.
“There are certainly legislative fixes that could be made to the statute, and we support legislative fixes, like making it mandatory and to act within a certain amount of days,” said Neel Lalchandani, a pro bono lawyer for Shipley and Jerome Johnson. “But in the meantime they should deal with the men who need compensation right now.”
This story has been updated to include responses from members of the Board of Public Works.