Forty-nine members of the House of Delegates – including Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) – have taken up the cause of five men who are seeking compensation from the state for being wrongly incarcerated.
The lawmakers – 47 Democrats and two Republicans, Dels. Kevin B. Hornberger (Cecil) and William J. Wivell (Washington) – wrote to the members of the Board of Public Works Tuesday, urging them to “promptly resolve the pending petitions for compensation” for the men.
The five men — Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley, and Hubert James Williams —collectively spent 120 years in Maryland prisons for crimes they did not commit. Together, they are seeking about $12 million in compensation to rebuild their lives.
All petitioned for redress from the Board of Public Works but have not received a penny. Their cases were spotlighted in recent weeks in a front-page Washington Post article and in a column in The Baltimore Sun.
In their letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), the lawmakers noted that all five men have been declared innocent by judges and that each petitioned the BPW for compensation at least a year ago.
“The exonerees have followed Maryland law in seeking reasonable compensation,” the delegates wrote. “The Board’s prompt resolution of the pending petitions is critical for the State to recognize the harm inflicted upon each wrongfully convicted Marylander and to help the innocent men rebuild their lives.”
Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) spearheaded the letter to the BPW members, timed to precede the board’s meeting Wednesday. She said she decided to write the letter following a conversation with an attorney representing Williams, a Baltimore County resident who has gone through extended periods of homelessness since being released from prison.
A spokesman for Hogan told the Post last month that the Board of Public cannot act on requests for restitution until the General Assembly passes a bill establishing compensation guidelines. State Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) and Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) introduced a bill in this year’s legislative session setting standards for restitution for individuals who are improperly incarcerated, but those measures stalled in committee.
But the legislators in their letter Tuesday said the BPW already has the authority to pay out damages.
“We just think it’s a travesty to ask them to wait any longer,” Hettleman said in an interview.
Two hours after Wednesday’s BPW meeting concluded, Hogan’s office released his written response to the lawmakers’ query.
While acknowledging “the pain and indignities experienced by innocent individuals for crimes they did not commit is unimaginable, and they deserve to be justly compensated as they rebuild their lives,” Hogan suggested that the legislature and the Board of Public Works aren’t the proper agencies to dole out restitution money.
“While the legislature has repeatedly failed to act, our administration will work with the Board to seek out an appropriate third party — such as Administrative Law Judges — that is better equipped to handle these cases and make determinations about compensation,” he said.