Shawn Armbrust is executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Michele Nethercott is director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic.
Hubert James Williams spent nearly 12 years in prison for two attempted murders that the state of Maryland agrees he didn’t commit. Set free without a dollar to his name, he cycles among hospitals, Veterans Affairs-subsidized housing and homelessness. He owns one pair of pants, which he holds up with a rope. He can’t afford a belt.
In accordance with Maryland law, Williams requested compensation for his wrongful imprisonment from Maryland’s Board of Public Works (BPW) in January 2018. He was followed by four other Maryland men who collectively served 120 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The BPW has simply ignored their requests.
Both exonerees and taxpayers pay the price for this inaction. The only other option for exonerees is to file federal civil rights lawsuits. Few prevail because there is a high burden of proving intentional misconduct. In the rare cases in which exonerees do win, taxpayers foot the bill for years of expensive litigation and monetary awards that recently have been as high as $9 million and $15 million.
Maryland is one of 35 states with a no-fault compensation law, allowing exonerees to seek payments from the BPW if they have received an absolute pardon from the governor or if a prosecutor has agreed they are factually innocent.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the BPW recently suggested that they cannot consider the five pending claims until the legislature provides a more uniform formula for determining the amounts to be awarded.
That’s nonsense. As it stands, the law allows (but doesn’t require) the BPW “to grant an amount commensurate with the actual damages sustained by the individual.” The BPW is simply shirking this responsibility. It should act on these claims now.
But the law also needs fixing. In 2017, after several years of considering the issue, the General Assembly created a task force to study compensation mechanisms and to suggest formulas to guide the BPW. The legislation it recommended never received a vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee because it was considered too vague and complicated.
Luckily, this issue does not require further study because there are simple ways to improve the law based on what other states have enacted. Provide a set amount of money for each year of wrongful incarceration, which is what most states and the federal government do. Put in clear eligibility standards and have courts assess the evidence as they do for other types of claims. Set time frames for processing claims and making payments.
The simplicity of these fixes is not an excuse for BPW inaction, however. Given the timing of the legislative process, a new law could not be signed until March at the earliest. It would not go into effect until more than a year from now — a year in which the five men with pending claims will continue to bear the burdens of their wrongful incarcerations.
The 120 total years they spent in prison for crimes they didn’t commit are 120 years of missed milestones: watching their children grow up and being there for weddings, funerals and countless holidays and birthdays. Instead, they lived in dangerous conditions under the constant threat of and, in some cases, actual, physical violence. They were deprived of the ability to pursue gainful employment and contribute to civil society. They suffered from substandard medical and dental care. And, they incurred lasting psychological damage — lost hope, depression, even attempted suicide.
Nor did the harms end when they were exonerated. Exonerations might seem joyous, but the transition to freedom can be anything but. Years without jobs and medical care cause damage that lasts well beyond prison. Post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health issues might haunt exonerees for decades. At least two of the five men with pending claims worry that they might not live to be compensated.
Maryland has a moral obligation to help these men. The Board of Public Works needs to pay the five exonerees now. The governor and the General Assembly need to fix the law for future cases. Instead of pointing fingers, each needs to do its part to compensate these men for the harm that Maryland continues to visit upon them.