- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Nearly 50 Maryland lawmakers are calling on a powerful state spending panel to compensate five men who were wrongly convicted of crimes and spent a combined 120 years in prison, as attorneys for the men seek as much as $12 million in combined compensation.

The letter, signed by 47 Democrats and two Republicans in the Maryland House of Delegates, was sent to the Board of Public Works, whose members are Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

“Every day, we ask Marylanders to take responsibility for their actions. That is why it is appropriate and important that the state takes responsibility for incarcerating innocent people for decades,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Democrat and one of the lawmakers who signed the letter. “Just as we seek justice for victims of crime, we should also seek justice for those wronged by the criminal court system.”

Maryland judges and prosecutors have found that petitioners Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams are innocent, the letter said, and some petitions filed by attorneys have been pending without a response for over a year.

“The board has previously exercised this responsibility: from 1984 to 2004, it awarded compensation to exonerees in an average of six months from their date of eligibility,” the lawmakers wrote. “The Board should again use its authority under Maryland law to now compensate the five innocent men.”

Hogan, a Republican, responded in a letter Wednesday that the legislature has taken up the issue of how to best compensate the wrongly incarcerated, but lawmakers have failed to reach a consensus on how to do it. Legislation to require the board to pay compensation stalled this year.

Hogan also noted that it should be “abundantly clear” that the board is not the appropriate venue to handle such cases going forward. He said the board does not have the expertise, capacity or personnel to make determinations about the damages incurred. Hogan also wrote that the board isn’t suited to determine potential needs for reintegration into society, including counseling, housing, health care and job training.

Still, Hogan said his administration would work to find a solution.

“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,” Hogan wrote.

Attorneys have requested the state compensate the men $100,000 for each year of incarceration for their clients.

Franchot said he believes the state has an obligation to compensate the wrongly incarcerated. The comptroller said board members are “working diligently toward a compassionate and responsible solution for these innocent victims.”

“These are people who have lost homes, jobs, families and personal dignity due to miscarriages of justice,” said Franchot, a Democrat. “While the State of Maryland can never truly repay them for everything they’ve lost, we have an obligation to compensate them at a level that will help them rebuild their lives.”

Kopp, a Democrat wrote in an email that while she believes it would be ideal to have a better precedent and method of allocating compensation, “there is no doubt that these men have suffered at the hands of the State.” She said the state “should act now to offer what compensation we can.”

“Their legal representatives have offered a settlement that seems quite reasonable to me,” Kopp wrote. “I hope the Board staff can review the proposal and that we can act quickly.”

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