WHAT IS a year of your life worth? What amount of money can compensate for the loss of time with your family? What makes up for not being able to hold your wife’s hand, or kiss your son good night, or be there when your mother is dying? These hard and perhaps unanswerable questions lie at the heart of the dilemma confronting Maryland as it tries to sort out how to compensate people who were wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned.
Maryland is one of 35 states that allows wrongly convicted felons who have been exonerated to receive compensation from the state for their time behind bars. But, as The Post’s Ovetta Wiggins reported, there have been few payouts — just three, with the most recent awarded 15 years ago — because of problems with the system that handles these claims. “Even when everyone thinks the person is innocent, we still can’t get them compensated,” said Shawn Armbrust, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project , which represents some of the five men who have current petitions before the state Board of Public Works for more than $12 million in redress.
No one seems to be denying the obligation to men who collectively spent 120 years in prison for crimes they did not commit and, still suffering, are in need of financial help to restore their lives. But there is disagreement over how to do it. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has raised objections about the process, arguing that the three-member Board of Public Works he chairs isn’t the appropriate venue to deal with complicated issues of what is owed in individual cases. He faults the legislature for its failure to enact legislation that established specific standards, and he is probably right that better benchmarks are needed.
But he glosses over the fact that Maryland law gives the authority to make these payments — “to grant an amount commensurate with the actual damages sustained by the individual” — to the Board of Public Works. Indeed, the board has used this authority in the past to make payments to people who were exonerated, and there is no reason it should now shirk its responsibility in the cases of these five men.
Lamar Johnson, Jerome Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley Jr. and Hubert James Williams were not guilty. They shouldn’t have been sent to prison. Mr. Hogan should support improvements in the law for future cases, but he and the other board members should not make these five men wait any longer for the recompense that is owed to them.