The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Lamar Johnson, at home in Baltimore, spent more than 13 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Nearly three dozen wrongly convicted felons have been exonerated over the past 30 years in Maryland, which like most other states allows them to be compensated for their time spent behind bars.

But only nine exonerees have sought payment — and just three have received money. The most recent damages were awarded 15 years ago.

The state lags far behind others in compensating those who were wrongly imprisoned, experts say. Since spring of last year, five exonerees have petitioned the state Board of Public Works for more than $12 million in redress. Their requests have largely gone unanswered. And elected officials are trading blame for why the system doesn’t work better.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said the Democratic-majority General Assembly needs to pass a bill establishing compensation standards before the Board of Public Works can act on requests. Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), who has sponsored such bills, said the board has the power to make awards even without the legislation. Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, twice has blocked Kelley’s bills, which he says were overly broad.

“Even when everyone thinks the person is innocent, we still can’t get them compensated,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which represents several of the men. “For such a progressive state, it’s really callous.”

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Together, Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley Jr. and Hubert James Williams spent 120 years behind bars. Each man was charged with a felony: four with murder, one with attempted murder. Each said he did not commit the crime. Their petitions were submitted over the past 18 months.

“We urge the board to follow Maryland’s compensation law and swiftly compensate these individuals, who are working hard to reclaim the lives they lost,” attorneys for four of the men wrote in a joint letter to state officials last month. “Each endured unimaginable pain while incarcerated. . . . Although they are now physically freed, their suffering continues.”

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.

Between 1989 and 2018, 2,472 people were released from prison with their convictions overturned, according to the registry. A third of those happened between 2014 and 2018. The data shows that African Americans are disproportionately affected by wrongful convictions, with blacks seven times more likely than whites to be jailed for crimes they did not commit.

Perspective: How bad science keeps innocent people in jail

The District and 35 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have passed legislation authorizing exonerees to be compensated for their time served. In Alabama, exonerees are entitled to at least $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. An exoneree in Missouri is given $50 for each day of incarceration, but no more than $36,500.

Maryland law states that an award may be granted for “actual damages sustained by the individual,” but it 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. A bill to approve those recommendations stalled in the legislature.

The state’s “convoluted system,” Kelley said, leaves exonerees without the resources they need and the justice they deserve.

Jeffrey S. Gutman, co-director of the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics at George Washington University Law School, said the percentage of Maryland exonerees who have asked for redress is lower than the national average. So is the percentage who have received it.

According to Gutman’s data, 50 percent of exonerees have been compensated in Virginia, and nearly a quarter have received redress in the District, compared with 9 percent in Maryland.

Until 2017, a wrongly convicted person in Maryland had to obtain a pardon from the governor to be awarded damages from the Board of Public Works, which includes the governor, state comptroller and treasurer.

With few pardons granted by Hogan and his predecessors, including former governor Martin O’Malley (D), the General Assembly removed that requirement two years ago. A convicted person now can obtain a “writ of innocence” from a judge and then petition the board for damages.

Coming home to Maryland after 24 years behind bars

Zirkin said his Senate committee wants exonerees to receive redress but has yet to come up with the best way to do it. Kelley’s bill, he said, could have allowed even those who had not obtained a writ to petition for compensation.

“We believe a legislative fix is necessary to address this issue, to have a clear and coherent policy direction for these and future cases,” Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said. “Without a legislative fix, the board’s decisions could be arbitrary or inconsistent.”

Susan O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), said Franchot plans to work with Hogan, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and Board of Public Works staff “to choose the most appropriate path forward.”

Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Shipley and Williams are seeking $8.1 million in compensation from the board — $100,000 for each year of their incarceration. Lomax, 71, who served 39 years in prison, asked for $4 million in his petition.

Jerome Johnson, 51, is also suing the Baltimore City Police Department, alleging that police purposely withheld evidence in the 1988 killing of Aaron Taylor, for which he was convicted and then exonerated. He declined an interview request.

Meet the two brothers wrongfully convicted in separate crimes

Lamar Johnson, 36, who is no relation to Jerome Johnson, said he finds it frustrating that the state has not acted on the petitions. “I just want the board to put themselves in our shoes,” he said. “Some exonerees don’t even have places to live.”

He was locked up at age 20 and freed in 2017. While family and friends were at his mother’s house celebrating, he hid in the bathroom for 45 minutes, sitting on the floor.

Confining himself in that closed room, similar in size to his prison cell, was an early indication of how difficult it would be to adjust to his newfound freedom, Johnson said later. He wasn’t around when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, or for his cousin’s funeral, or to watch his twin sisters grow up. He was released with no identification, no medical insurance and no real job training.

“It was like the state admitted, ‘We made a mistake, now go fix your life,’ ” he said. “I had nothing.”

Williams, 67, a military veteran and a recovering addict, was convicted of murder in 1974, at age 22. He had been out of prison and on parole for five months when he was accused in the 1997 shooting and attempted robbery of a bartender in Baltimore County. Back in prison, he twice attempted suicide.

A detective who had worked on the case as a uniformed officer eventually started looking into Williams’s claims of innocence, and he found witnesses who had lied under oath. His work persuaded prosecutors to push for Williams’s release in 2009.

Since then, Williams has been homeless at times, living in the woods in Takoma Park. He was recently treated at the VA Medical Center in the District, where he described his time in prison to a reporter.

His voice was shaky, and his story rambled.

“I had to keep saying to myself, ‘James, it’s okay. James, it’s okay,’ ” he said, sitting on his hospital bed. After his discharge, he was scheduled to check into a rehab facility in West Virginia.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby apologized to Shipley in December when he was released after 27 years in prison, exonerated for the 1991 murder of Kevin Smith. Shipley, 47, was convicted based on testimony of a man who, after an investigation by the Innocence Project, admitted to lying to get a shorter sentence for a crime he committed. Prosecutors now say Smith was killed by a man named Larry Davis, who died in 2005.

Shipley, who became a Christian during his incarceration, said he carries no bitterness and has forgiven those who played a part in his wrongful conviction. No amount of money, he said, could make up for the time he lost with his family or for having to mourn from prison after his 12-year-old son, Isaiah, died in a house fire in 2002.

But, like the other exonerees, he believes the state is obliged to provide redress.

“Not only would it help me,” Shipley said, his voice cracking, “it would help my family. My family still lives in the projects, still struggling. It would do a lot for me.”

Report: New York City to settle with ‘Central Park Five’ for $40 million.

Editorial: Two extraordinary exonerations show the failure of our justice system

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