The decision by state leaders to compensate five men who spent significant time behind bars for crimes they did not commit would appear to bring resolution to their cases.
But a veteran state lawmaker involved in the issue said the cases that vexed top officials for months represent just the tip of what could be a very costly iceberg.
Wednesday’s action by the Board of Public Works means the five men, who collectively spent 120 years in prison following wrongful convictions, will receive approximately $78,000 for every year they were incarcerated.
Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) said his staff recommended that amount because it is the median income for a Maryland household.
“It’s an objective number. It’s not something we’re picking out of the air,” the state’s tax collector said just before the panel’s vote.
“We chose the median household income intentionally because — through their erroneous conviction and incarceration — these five men were deprived of the opportunity to have a household and the opportunity to gain an income and make contributions to their communities and to our state.”
State leaders can — and should — use this figure to resolve any future cases that surface, Franchot said. “We don’t have to go through a lengthy process, reinventing the wheel.”
It may not be that simple.
In an interview shortly after the vote, Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said the five cases represent “only a minuscule percentage of the persons who’ve been exonerated in Maryland. There are at least 31 of them on the National Register of exonerated people.”
Even that number is dwarfed by the potential number of falsely convicted individuals whose cases were handled by the Baltimore City Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. Several members of that now-disbanded unit have pleaded guilty to federal charges they planted evidence and stole from victims.
“When you hear the Baltimore City State’s Attorney say that there might be upward of 800 people whose convictions are [going to get] overturned… I don’t think they have paid attention to what the potential number of cases really is,” Kelley said of the Hogan administration.
State leaders have struggled to figure out how to compensate the five men whose cases were brought to light by a series of columns in The Baltimore Sun and subsequent news reports in The Washington Post.
The General Assembly has considered legislation to create a compensation formula in recent years, but it did not pass.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) tried to offload the issue, saying that the Board of Public Works, which he chairs, didn’t have the expertise to come up with a system either. He criticized the legislature for its inaction multiple times.
In the face of criticism, Hogan did a partial retreat in September, directing board staff to huddle with aides to Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) to work out a memorandum of understanding with the state’s administrative law judges.
That eventually led to the decision to offer $78,000 for each year served, a number Franchot credited Assistant Comptroller John Gontrum with proposing.
But will that number create a precedent that breaks the bank in the years to come?
If the board — made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — has such concerns, members have not voiced them publicly, perhaps fearful they would be accused of acting in an inconsistent manner.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Franchot touted the number as viable.
“This particular formula should take care of this issue,” he said, “not just for these five individuals, but for anyone that may follow.”
Hogan did not attend Wednesday’s session. Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), who ran the meeting in his absence, expressed hope that the compensation “bring this matter to a just and rightful close.”
Kopp called the payment “a very small token of the heartfelt apologies of the state and all of our citizens.”
“These are men who spent thousands of days, thousands of mornings — one of them almost fifty years — in prison,” she added. “Not only were they innocent but they were terribly wronged, and I apologize.”
Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams had their cases championed by various advocates who took their cases pro bono.
Two will receive just under a million dollars from the state. The others will receive between $2.1 million and $3 million. They will receive their payouts in installments over the next several years.
Kelley urged creation of a “systematic” approach – not one that just generates “good press” – because people who’ve been incarcerated for long periods of time need health coverage, social services, assistance obtaining Real ID compliant identification and other help if they are to re-enter society successfully.