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Justice for exonorees halted by the coronavirus

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Posted at 9:58 PM, Apr 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-07 23:26:23-04

This legislative session ended early because of coronavirus— leaving many worthy pieces of legislation on the drawing room floor.

People who were wrongfully convicted felt they were on the doorstep of justice with three bills that would have provided financial compensation and help keep or free innocent people from prison.

Only one of those bills passed in time.

WMAR-2 News’ Eddie Kadhim has been following this story for months and virtually sat down with exonorees and the people fighting for them as they explained how coronavirus is making an already difficult fight even harder.

For five years Demitrius Smith was in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, largely because of the testimony of a jailhouse informant who was trying to get a deal.

A deal based on a lie that cost him so much.

“Time with my child, time away from my family,” said Smith. “They kidnapped me pretty much.”

Governor Larry Hogan called on lawmakers to create legislation to help the wrongfully convicted.

He’s expected to sign a bill into law that will help with wrongful convictions by tracking jailhouse informants testimonies.

Two bills that would provide compensation to the tune of $81,000 a year in a timely manner passed through the house and the initial vote in the senate— but were halted before a final vote by two republican lawmakers as the legislative session came to a close early because of coronavirus.

You can learn more about those bills here.

“The Governor called on the legislature to fix this law and members of his own party decided to kill it at the last minute,” said Michelle Feldman with the Innocence Project. “It was really unfair to use the COVID-19 Crisis and the rush to end session to deny innocent people their chance to get compensation.”

So—many Maryland exonorees will wait another year— without the chance for compensation, no way to work, and no savings.

“They haven’t been able to save for homes, they don’t have employment history,” said Shawn Armbrust an attorney with the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project. “As Michelle said they don’t actually have access to the same services that people have when they are released on parole.”

The Innocence Project is also close to exonerating clients who are now stuck in a prison system that has linked to around 20 confirmed cases.

They’re joining other advocacy groups calling on the Governor to take steps to lesson the prison populations as they struggle to contain the spread.

“Prioritize the immediate release of prisoners who are elderly or otherwise medically vulnerable,” said Armbrust. “You can release people who are about to be released anyway.”

Walter Lomax an exonoree who got out in 2006 after he spent 39 years in jail.

Now he fights to stop people from going through what he did.

He survived a heart attack while waiting to testify in Annapolis and was released from hospital care on the day of the conference.

The first thing he did was hop on this virtual conference to fight for the innocent people in jail.

“We had some conditions that existed during the period while I was incarcerated but nothing of this magnitude so II just have great concern as to how this is going to play out,” said Lomax.