The Maryland Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to award compensation to two wrongfully convicted Marylanders and approve the final payment plans for three others.
“Like all Marylanders who have been in prison wrongfully, all of these individuals are victims of a broken criminal justice system — frankly, it plagues the nation,” Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) said during the meeting. “No dollar amount can restore what was taken from them, but I do hope that this action today provides some solace and a sense of vindication to these five Marylanders.”
Eric Simmons and Kenneth McPherson each erroneously spent 24 years in prison for first-degree murder. The Conviction Integrity Unit at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office reopened the investigation, finding that both individuals were eligible to apply for a writ of actual innocence, which they were granted in 2019.
Simmons and McPherson were released on May 3, 2019, and are set to receive $1,973,465 by August 2025.
Simmons said he appreciate the Board of Public Works’ decision.
He said that this money will allow him to pursue his life with a roof over his head as he attempts to go back to school.
“Money can’t take it away, but it will allow you to move forward with your life,” Simmons told Maryland Matters in a phone interview, “and I like to always say that it’s not a handout, it’s a hand up, because for …24 years and eight months I couldn’t grow, I couldn’t learn — most of my formative years was spent in there. So I definitely appreciate them.”
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) said that lawmakers owe it to the men to instill systemic change.
“We all owe these gentlemen, not only financial payment — which we are making — but our sincere apologies, and resolution to oversee changes in the system which will prevent this from happening in the future,” she said.
Additionally, the board approved payment schedules for Andrew Stewart Jr., Ransom Watkins and Alfred Chestnut, each of whom is to receive $2,918,441 over seven years after being approved for compensation on March 4.
Michelle Feldman, the state campaign director at the Innocence Project, said that Simmons filed for compensation in February and didn’t know that the board would be voting on his request until last week.
“It’s great that they took it up, but, you know, there hasn’t been a consistent process,” she said.
McPherson and Simmons are added to a growing list of Marylanders who are to receive compensation from the state for illegal incarceration. The first five individuals to be paid for wrongful convictions were awarded by the Board of Public Works in October 2019.
Legislation to change the eligibility for and process of compensation for exonerees was introduced during the truncated 2020 legislative session. The bill passed in the House but died in the final hours of the legislative session on the Senate floor.
Feldman said that the legislation, which would take the burden out of the hands of the Board of Public Works, would allow administrative law judges to consider claims of innocence, expanding the possibility of payment beyond just those with writs of actual innocence.
“It should, you know, allow people that have their convictions overturned and have proof of their innocence, no matter how their conviction was overturned — whether it was through DNA, or the state withholding evidence or the writ of innocence — there should be a process with the administrative law judges to look at that evidence, assess whether the person was innocent and wrongfully incarcerated and then have a set amount of awards for each year that they were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated,” she explained.
These new payments come during contentious times, following multiple high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police, including Breonna Taylor, who was shot by officers in her Louisville, Ky., apartment, Rayshard Brooks, who was gunned down by officers after falling asleep in his car in Atlanta and George Floyd, who was suffocated by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
This has prompted weeks of protest in cities across the country. Lawmakers are calling for sweeping police reform, and Maryland is no exception.
Earlier this month, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr (D-Montgomery) proposed a series of bills aimed at improving police accountability measures that he intends to introduce during the 2021 legislative session in January.
Looking for more immediate action, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones penned a letter Tuesday to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) calling for him to issue an executive order that would ban the use of chokeholds, among other measures.
The letter closely followed the speaker’s announcement two weeks ago that she will be convening a workgroup to review law enforcement use of force and misconduct procedure.
The workgroup, chaired by Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard), is set to begin meeting next week.
Feldman called the question of compensation an “issue of racial justice.”
“Just as we’re seeing law enforcement kill innocent African American men on the streets, we’re seeing them wrongfully convicted and innocent African American men and women, and taking away, years of their lives — ripping them from their families,” she said.
Kopp called the turbulence of 2020 a “potentially wonderful point in time.”
“Everything’s sort of broken open,” the treasurer said during the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday. “You can see things more clearly and better than we have for a long time and we have the capacity, actually, to make these changes and my greatest hope is we don’t waste the opportunity.”