ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Exonerated of murder and other charges in 2014, Walter Lomax is still making his way through the Maryland bureaucracy to receive compensation for 39 years of wrongful imprisonment.
Now, he sits on a state task force to study the issue.
A state law that went into effect Oct. 1 created the 10-member task force, which is planning to establish a compensation standard for those wrongfully imprisoned in Maryland. A governor’s pardon is no longer required for damages to be awarded, under the law.
The task force to study erroneous conviction and imprisonment met for the first time Tuesday and must report their findings to Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly by Dec. 15.
“The reason this is such a short-term task force is because we’re here to compensate,” said Maryland Sen. Delores Kelley, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County and sponsored the legislation.
Unlike other states, Maryland does not have a set standard for paying damages to those who have been pardoned. In North Carolina, for example, they receive $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. In California, it’s $140 for each day.
Under current Maryland law, the Board of Public Works determines compensation packages based on “actual damages,” on a case-by-case basis.
The board, which includes the governor, comptroller and state treasurer, has used its contingency fund for five pardon claims since 1984:
—Michael Austin, who was convicted of murder in 1974 and exonerated in 2002, was paid $1.4 million for close to 27 years of incarceration.
—Bernard Webster served almost 20 years for rape and was pardoned by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening in 2003 and granted $900,000 in 20 semiannual installments.
—In 1985, Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted of murder, sexual assault and rape. Bloodsworth, who received $300,000 for nine years of imprisonment, was the first individual to be sentenced to death and then exonerated eight years later by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
—Leslie Vass was convicted of armed robbery in 1975 and served 10 years. In 1986, he was exonerated and received $250,000.
—In 1979, Cornell Avery Estes was sentenced to 20 years for murder, but was exonerated 11 months later after another confessed to the crime. The state paid Estes $16,500 in 1984.
When asked for his views on compensation, Lomax said that he’d looked at the assessments made in the past and felt at a loss.
“Unless someone has actually had that experience, they can’t really fathom the type of damage that’s been done,” Lomax told fellow task force members Tuesday.
“Think about someone who’s been incarcerated two-thirds of their life. Almost 40 years. And you compare that to how much this person could have made. What is their net worth,” Lomax added. “It’s not a fair assessment.”
Lomax has not yet submitted a request for compensation to the Board of Public Works because until the new law went into effect, an individual could only appear before the board if they had received a pardon.
Lomax was not alone in being denied compensation. Of the 25 people who have been exonerated in Maryland since 1991, only three (Austin, Bloodsworth and Webster) have also been pardoned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a law school project that has tracked every known exoneration from the past 28 years.
Lomax told University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that he’d sent an application for pardon in the latter part of 2015, but the governor hadn’t signed it. Hogan’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the case.
This new Maryland law is important, said Klara Stephens, a research scholar for the National Registry of Exonerations .
“When exonerees are freed, they very often have little to no resources, and their opportunities to build financial stability have been taken from them,” Stephens said. “To require a pardon in order to be compensated adds another very time-consuming step to the process of getting them back on their feet.”
“And, of course, pardons are often political,” Stephens added. “So politicians can be reluctant to grant them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of innocence.”
According to the National Registry, “an exoneration occurs when a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.” Under Maryland law, a pardon is defined separately from an exoneration as an “act of clemency” from the governor.
But now, with the new law in effect, Lomax doesn’t need a pardon. A requestor can either present a pardon or a certification from the state’s attorney that “the conviction was in error,” according to the Board of Public Works.
Lomax told Capital News Service that he plans to submit a request for compensation very soon.
Though money was the focus of Tuesday’s meeting, the task force will also take on the systems that can lead to wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
Lomax asked the task force, which remains active until next fall, to consider the systemic injustices that come up in the enforcement and administration of the law.
In 1968, Lomax was sentenced to life prison for the death of Robert Brewer, a night manager at a Baltimore food market. But Lomax, whose right hand had been injured and put in a cast just hours before the murder, contended that it wasn’t physically possible for him to commit the crime.
He was convicted anyway, based on witness identification, even though there was no physical or forensic evidence linking Lomax to the crime, according to the National Registry.
Repeatedly, Lomax filed requests for a new trial and repeatedly, he was denied.
Then, in 2006, a Baltimore judge found that Lomax’s trial attorney “had provided a constitutionally ineffective defense,” according to the National Registry. The attorney failed to present evidence on the cause of Lomax’s injury — a knife attack outside a dance he was chaperoning — and also failed to call police officers who’d taken down descriptions of a gunman that looked nothing like Lomax.
“The lawyer failed to call a police officer who could have testified that he chased the suspect and that the suspect outran him — a feat that Lomax would have been unable to accomplish due to his injuries from the attack outside the dance,” according to the National Registry.
In 2006, Lomax was released for “time served,” but his record of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and attempted armed robbery stood intact until his exoneration in 2014.
Lomax was 20 years old when he was arrested.
Next week, on Halloween, he will celebrate his 70th birthday.