Lawyers: Maryland to make compensation offer to 5 wrongly convicted men

Five men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned by the state of Maryland have been offered “generous” compensation, said the lawyer for one of them — and the packages could be approved as early as Wednesday.

Geoffrey Derrick, the lawyer for Lamar Johnson, one of the exonerated men, told WTOP on Tuesday that Maryland’s Board of Public Works had reached out to each of the five and said they’d determined each of the men would receive $78,916 per year — the present median income in Maryland — for the time they were unlawfully incarcerated, counting from the date of their sentence until they were released.

“We are ecstatic with this offer from the state,” Derrick said, adding, “I believe it puts Maryland toward the top of states nationwide” in terms of such compensation.

Johnson spent a little more than 13 years in prison for a 2004 murder in Baltimore that he didn’t commit; he is in line to get $953,672.

Asked to describe Johnson’s reaction to the offer, Derrick said, “He was incredibly excited and relieved.”

Johnson was released from prison in 2017, and filed his petition about a year and a half ago.

“This is the final mile in a marathon for Lamar,” Derrick said. “It’s been a lengthy process, and he was very excited that at the end of all this, that the state saw fit to award this amount of compensation.”

‘Misidentification’

Derrick said Johnson was convicted based on eyewitness testimony that produced “a misidentification.” Two witnesses identified him from a photo, even though Johnson’s photo was the only one that fit the description of what the killer looked like.

“All the while, from his trial to his first day to his last day in prison,” Derrick said of Johnson, “he maintained he was innocent.”

After a few years in prison, Johnson learned from some other inmates about the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

Lawyers for the project found new evidence, Derrick said, including a new witness who “testified contrary to the witnesses at trial,” who eventually “totally recanted their trial testimony.”

Johnson’s defense lawyers argued that the new evidence “created a substantial likelihood that the outcome of the trial would have been different had the full scope of the evidence been presented to the jury,” Derrick said, and the Baltimore Attorney Conviction Integrity Unit agreed with the defense lawyers “that there was not sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction.”

‘A model exoneree’

Johnson was in his early 20s when he was imprisoned; he is 36 now.

Derrick said there are “surprisingly few” resources for people in his situation, who have been denied years of earning potential and have an awkward hole in their work histories.

“But he is a model exoneree in the sense that he has done a fantastic job trying to get back on his feet,” Derrick said.

Johnson does handiwork of various kinds at Blue Ocean Realty. He got the job after an executive from the firm heard Johnson speak at an Innocence Project fundraiser — something the exoneree does regularly, his lawyer said.

With the compensation, he said, Johnson is “excited to take this money and start a business, to perhaps improve his mom’s living situation, and the like.” He wants to buy some properties of his own in the Baltimore area and rent them out himself.

The Board of Public Works is set to meet Wednesday; Derrick said that if they don’t approve the compensation at that meeting, he has been told it will only be a matter of a few weeks.

“All systems are go,” he said. “I’m just excited that Lamar will have the opportunity to start his life anew.”

Standard procedure?

The other four who have petitioned for compensation are Hubert James Williams, Jerome Johnson, Walter Lomax and Clarence Shipley. Together, they spent about 120 years in prison; that would make the total compensation just under $9.5 million.

Derrick said the first $78,916 payment would be made within 30 days, and the full amount would be paid in installments, finishing up by the summer of 2025.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed for the legislature to set standard procedures for such cases in the future, so that anyone else in the five men’s situation won’t have to wait so long.

Derrick said there hasn’t been a similar compensation case in Maryland in more than 10 years: “I don’t fault the Maryland government for the time it’s taken to resolve these petitions.”

That said, he hopes future exonerees wait months, rather than years, for compensation. To force them to wait years, he said, “puts vulnerable men and women in an exceedingly difficult situation.”

‘We’re all thrilled’

A standard procedure is exactly what the lawyers for Williams are looking for. It took nearly two years to get to this day, said lawyer Andrew George, and “we’re all thrilled.”

Williams was in prison for 12 years, and has been homeless for most of the past 10 years — George said Williams was panhandling as recently as a few weeks ago.

“James has had a life that is pretty hard to imagine … and the fact that he is never going to have to live that way again feels really good to all of us,” George said. “We’re thrilled that our client lives to see this day, which, unfortunately, was a question.”

Williams will get about $900,000; his lawyers worked pro bono. In fact, one of the provisions of the compensation offer was that the lawyers are not entitled to any of the money. “The money is the least of our concerns,” George said.

“James was thrilled,” said lawyer Jana Seidl. “He will now have a roof over his head. For him, this is a new start.”

WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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