Franchot, Kopp Press for Earlier Resolution of Exoneree Payments

Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) at a recent Board of Public Works meeting. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) said Wednesday that they are frustrated with the slow pace at which the Board of Public Works is addressing a request for compensation for five men who were wrongly imprisoned for a collective 120 years.

“We need to take action on this issue expeditiously for these five individuals and render a plan that is reasonable, responsible and compassionate,” Franchot said. “…They were deprived of years of freedom and opportunity and time with their family and friends. The very absolute least we can do is compensate them in a timely and fair manner.”

The issue has come up several times at recent Board of Public Works meetings, following a push by lawyers for the men – Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley, and Hubert James Williams – and pressure from the General Assembly.

But Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has said the judiciary is better equipped to determine fair compensation levels and pointed out that the General Assembly has failed to reach consensus on legislation to govern such payments. At a meeting last month, Hogan asked the board’s attorney to start working with judges on a compensation plan.

Franchot said he knows that Board of Public Works staff is working with the state’s chief administrative law judge on a process for payments to exonerees, “but as an equal voting member, I would like for us to agree on a path forward at our next meeting.”

Franchot made the stand at a meeting Hogan, with whom he frequently agrees, did not attend. He and Kopp, who also wants the board to render an independent decision on the five cases, could outvote the governor to move forward more quickly or outside of the proposal he comes up with.

“I understand that there is a desire to set up a system for the future. I think that is a good idea for the future,” Kopp said. “But I don’t think we have to wait on these five gentlemen for all of the lawyers to get together and set up a system.”

She noted that the board has, in the past, granted payments in such cases on its own. Past board decisions on payments to exonerees was chronicled in a recent article by The Washington Post.

The last payment the board made was for $1.4 million in 2004 to Michael Austin, who had served just shy of 27 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction. Austin’s payment, which was debated and decided by the board members, amounted to $143 a day for each day he was imprisoned.

In today’s dollars, the payment would be equivalent to $194 per day.

Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), who chaired the meeting in Hogan’s absence, said the governor’s office was not dragging its feet on the issue and was prepared to share information with other board members soon. Rutherford also said that the administration was working to secure access to a treatment facility for one of the exonerees, who struggles with substance abuse.

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