“This bill gives exonerees a chance at finally getting justice,” said Michelle Feldman, the state campaigns director for the Innocence Project. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about closure.”
The bill is named in honor of Walter Lomax, who spent 39 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction and has become a champion for prison reform and compensation for exonerees.
It would set the amount that exonerees would be paid for each year behind bars and allow an administrative law judge to provide other benefits, including a state identification card, housing accommodations for up to five years, health and dental care, educational training and reimbursement for court fees.
The judge would decide whether an exoneree is eligible for compensation, instead of the state Board of Public Works, a three-member panel made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer that normally deals with state contracts. The payments would be equal to the state’s annual median income, averaged over five years, for each year the person spent behind bars.
Feldman said Maryland is one of 35 states that allows state payments to the wrongly convicted, and the only one of those 35 in which a panel such as the Board of Public Works decides how much to pay, when to pay and whether to pay at all.
Under that system, exonerees have had to petition the board and wait — sometimes for years — for a decision. Advocates say some exonerated prisoners never bothered, because the process seemed so unpredictable.
Sen. Dolores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), who has spearheaded the effort to create a more clearly defined system, recently told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that the change was long overdue.
“We should be ashamed of ourselves that it has taken as long” as it has, she said. “We can’t let more years, more decades keep going by while we talk about something that we know is a grossly unjust situation.”
The legislature has been slowly making changes to the process, trying to make it less onerous. In 2017, it eliminated the requirement for exonerees to win a gubernatorial pardon in order to get compensated, so long as they received a writ of innocence from a state prosecutor. But exonerees still had trouble getting compensated.
In the spring of 2018, five wrongly convicted men, who collectively spent 120 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, petitioned the Board of Public Works for more than $12 million in redress. Their petition largely went unanswered. After the men’s plight became public, a group of about 50 lawmakers, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore), urged the Board of Public Works to act.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) argued that the Board of Public Works did not have the expertise to determine the amounts of payments. He blamed the legislature for not creating specific rules. But lawmakers said the panel had the ability and legal authority to make the decision.
Advocates and lawmakers continued to apply pressure, and by the end of 2019, the Board of Public Works agreed to pay the men about $9 million. Each man received $78,916 for each year they spent in prison. Lomax, who was among the five men who petitioned, received $3 million.
Last year, just before he was scheduled to testify on the legislation, he had a heart attack and stroke in the State House complex. A state trooper helped save his life. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) visited Lomax in the hospital, who told him: “‘You just really got to pass that bill.’ ”
Lomax, now 73, said in an interview Wednesday that he was humbled to have the bill named after him and excited that his advocacy could mean a different experience for other exonerees.
“No one should have to deal with what I experienced,” he said, noting that he was released in 2006, exonerated in 2014 but not approved for compensation until 2019.
“No amount of money will be able to compensate us for what we’ve been through,” Lomax said. “But what it really does, it is an acknowledgment that something was done and it was done unjustly.”
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), the House sponsor of the bill, said she expects it to move through that chamber quickly, with bipartisan support. She said a similar bill passed the House last year before the legislature abruptly adjourned its session due to the coronavirus.
She is planning to submit amendments to the House bill so it is similar to the one passed by the Senate on Wednesday. “I do think that it just clarifies all sorts of things, so [the process] is not willy nilly,” she said.