Law will fix Maryland’s compensation system for individuals that were erroneously convicted, sentenced and confined
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan today signed into law legislation to fix the state’s compensation system for wrongfully convicted Marylanders. The legislation, known as “The Walter Lomax Act,” passed the House and the Senate unanimously last month thanks to champions in the legislature, Senator Kelley and Delegate Dumais. Prior to the signing of this new law, few exonerees had been compensated, and for those compensated, it was a long and challenging process. This new law designates Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to oversee the process – rather than the state’s Board of Public Works (BPW) – and establishes a clear process and path to compensation for Marylanders who prove their innocence.
“First, I am honored that the bill was named after me (The Walter Lomax Act) and that we have finally concluded this dark chapter for those wrongfully convicted to be compensated in Maryland’s history,” said Walter Lomax, who was exonerated in 2014 after spending 39 years in prison for a series of fatal robberies he did not commit. “The ratification of this legislation represents an important correction to a long inequity in Maryland’s compensation law and begins a healing process for exonerees like me who have waited decades for a just, timely, and equitable compensation process. Today we have taken a critical step to right some of the wrongs that have so deeply impacted the lives of wrongfully convicted Marylanders.”
Walter Lomax suffered a heart attack before testifying on the House Floor last session in favor of this bill. At the signing, Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) offered a powerful note from his time visiting Walter Lomax in the hospital. – Lomax told him, “please try to get that bill done.” Senator Ferguson noted, “It’s a year late, pandemic delayed, but this will be a very big victory.”
Until today, Maryland’s law had been out of step with the rest of the nation as there was no set amount, process, or timelines for payment. While the BPW did compensate ten exonerees since 2019, the law contained major flaws that rendered the process unfair and inefficient. As a result, the only avenue to economic justice for many exonerees was to file federal civil rights lawsuits, which cost Maryland taxpayers over $24 million.
“We applaud the signing of this critical legislation and thank Senator Kelley, Delegate Dumais, and the Maryland exonerees who advocated and worked tirelessly to ensure the ratification of this legislation – a long-awaited fix to the state’s broken compensation law,” said Shawn Armbrust, director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. “The Walter Lomax Act establishes a fair, straightforward process for Maryland to compensate the wrongfully convicted while protecting taxpayers.”
Senate Bill 14 was sponsored by Senator Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County), and House Bill 742 was sponsored by Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County). The just-passed legislation was a product of collaboration between Senator Kelley, Delegate Dumais, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.
“The arc of justice might be long and hard, but with the help of the Innocence Project and other champions of right, we have prevailed on this issue. There is other heavy lifting yet to do!” said Senator Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) sponsor of the Senate Bill and a persistent champion for correcting Maryland’s compensation law.
“While compensation cannot fully remedy the impacts of a wrongful conviction, it is critical to our ability to navigate life after exoneration,” said Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sentenced to death and spent 9 years in prison for a Baltimore County murder and exonerated in 1993. “The signing of this law to me signals an opportunity for a fruitful life and establishes the financial means to provide for myself and access needed resources – the pivotal nature of this new law cannot be overstated for exonerees like myself.”
The just-signed Walter Lomax Act will improve the exoneree compensation law by:
- Assigning Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to oversee the process. Under the new legislation, Maryland will establish judicial oversight of the compensation process. ALJs are well-positioned to handle compensation claims because their role includes weighing evidence, rendering legal and factual findings and ruling on monetary damages.
- Setting an amount and timeline for compensation payments. The new legislation would provide clarity for how exonerees would be compensated, which is lacking under current law, by codifying the formula that the Board of Public Works most recently used. The state would also now be able to supplementally compensate wrongfully convicted people such as Kirk Bloodsworth, who was exonerated before 2005 and did not receive adequate compensation as Bloodsworth noted in his House testimony and Delegate Kipke also referred to in his remarks.
- Making eligibility based on proof of innocence. The new legislation puts in place new safeguards absent in current law. No one under this new set of criteria would be automatically eligible (current law provides automatic eligibility for anyone with a “writ of actual innocence”). All applicants would have to prove their case to an Administrative Law Judge, who may rule at their own discretion on the merits of the case. The legislation also now requires applicants to prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that they meet the criteria of the law.
- Offsetting civil payments with state compensation awards. This new legislation also puts into place financial protections for the state. Exonerees would be ineligible for state compensation if they have received payments from a civil suit related to their wrongful conviction that are above or equal to that which they would be eligible. As well, if a wrongfully convicted person receives payments from a civil case after receiving compensation, they would be required to pay the state back the difference.