November 2, 2019
The state of Maryland on Wednesday approved payments of about $9 million to five wrongly convicted men, including about $3 million — the state's largest-ever such settlement — to a man who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
The settlements, passed on a unanimous vote by the Board of Public Works, amount to $78,916 for each year of wrongful incarceration. They will be paid out in installments — by July, 2021 for two of the men, and July, 2025 for the other three.
It is the first time in 15 years the state has approved compensation to exonerees seeking redress. The vote signals the end of a protracted journey for the men, who served a collective 120 years in prison and waited as long as 20 months for the state to respond to their petitions.
"This is a huge development for James. It means life or death for him," said Kristen Lloyd, an attorney for Hubert James Williams, 68, who is being treated for drug addiction and has frequently been homeless since his release. "It means he won't be living on the streets, and he can get the help that he has desperately needed."
Williams, who served 11 years for a wrongful conviction of attempted murder, signed papers to accept the offer on Friday, Lloyd said, while "crying happy tears."
The other four men are Lamar Johnson, 36; Jerome Johnson, 51; Walter Lomax, 71; and Clarence Shipley Jr., 48. They were seeking $12 million, or roughly $100,000 per year of incarceration.
The settlement covers money for each year the men served after sentencing, not their pretrial detention. The Washington Post first reported the state's offer on Tuesday.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who chairs the Board of Public Works, agreed to forge a settlement after weeks of pressure from the other two members of the panel — Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) — as well as dozens of state lawmakers, including new House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).
Hogan initially said the board was not equipped to respond to the men's petitions, even though it had approved such settlements years ago.
The governor asked Maryland's chief administrative law judge to work with the board's general counsel to put in place a procedure for compensating the men and future exonerees. After being told that creating a procedure was "complicated" and would take a long time, Hogan instructed the general counsel to work on a settlement offer.
Franchot spokeswoman Susan O'Brien said Tuesday that the comptroller was glad that a resolution was reached to address "these profound injustices."
"While we cannot recapture the years these men lost from their lives, he hopes they have productive and successful lives as they move forward," O'Brien said.
Hogan was not at the board's meeting on Wednesday, but was represented by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R).
"Now I can finally move forward with my life," said Lamar Johnson, 36, who was freed in 2017. "Just trying to put the last 13½ years behind me and rebuild my life."
He said he plans to buy his mother a house and start his own business, buying houses in Baltimore to renovate and rent. He currently does maintenance work for Blue Ocean, a real estate company that has worked to help the exonerees.
"I plan on getting some counseling, too," Johnson said. "Even though I'm blessed to get the money and I'm blessed to have my freedom, I still deal with depression. . . . As time goes on, maybe I'll stop feeling like that."
Lomax, who was incarcerated for 39 years, will receive the largest award.
Jerome Johnson, who served 29 years, is also suing the Baltimore Police Department, alleging that officers purposely withheld evidence in the 1988 killing of Aaron Taylor, for which he was wrongly convicted.
Maryland has paid a total of $3 million to seven exonerees since the General Assembly passed a law allowing such compensation in 1963, according to a Board of Public Works official, Sheila McDonald.
Before Lomax's award, the largest was $1.4 million, paid over 10 years, to Michael Austin. That settlement, approved by the Board of Public Works in 2004, was equivalent to $194 per day in today's dollars, or $70,810 a year for the nearly 27 years Austin was incarcerated.