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Paying back decades of stolen time

What is being done for exonerees?
Posted at 8:58 PM, Feb 18, 2020

BALTIMORE — After decades in prison you don't have a pair of pants or a toothbrush to go home with.

Walter Lomax had his story-- and a drive to help prevent others from going down his undeserved path.

He was exonerated and started his own organization to help with the failings of the criminal justice system that lead to his wrongful conviction.

He was sent away for 40 years for sticking out in a crowd.

He went to the precinct because he heard police were at his mother’s house with a warrant for his arrest.

“We didn't find out until many years later that the warrant was never actually for me it was for one of my brothers for child support. Because they were rounding up hundreds of black males placing them in mass lineups, they never told me that. Since I subsequently got picked out in one of the line ups, they just felt he was picked out of the lineup so that is the person we're going to charge with these crimes."

Lomax was charged with three murders and a slew of other crimes.

Pressure was high on the Baltimore City Police Department to clear the books and he got picked out of a lineup.

"They created a false scenario that there was a ballistic and all of these crimes,” Lomax said. “Ergo they've arrested somebody for one of them there is a ballistic link to the rest of them he must be the person that committed all of these crimes."

He says many years later he found out that the ballistic link they released was fake.

"They discovered they had actually framed me for the charges. We found this out way after the fact."

Lomax--now in his '70s wasn't just okay getting out.

He wasn't okay that young black men are still getting profiled into prison cells, or that he or any other exoneree didn't see any compensation for years after being released.

He poured his anger into action by creating the Maryland Restorative Justice initiative working towards two main goals.

“One is that they be adequately compensated and two they be compensated in a timely fashion. I think that those things are very very important. "

Shawn Armbrust, the Mid- Atlantic Innocence Project Executive Director said that between 2004 and October of 2019 nobody in Maryland was compensated under the law.

Before 2016 compensation required a gubernatorial pardon, which was hard to come by.

Advocacy groups like the Innocence Project put pressure on a board run by the governor and finally compensated five men, including Lomax in 2019.

"Finally, after a public pressure campaign they were acted on but now we're trying to change the law so that doesn't happen again,” Armbrust said. “To ensure that compensation is not exactly automatic but is more automatic."

In Annapolis a bill that speeds up compensation will be voted on during this session.

Under it an administrative law judge decides who gets compensated and removes the burden of getting a gubernatorial pardon.

The compensation would be the 5-year average of household median income which is currently $78,000 a year and would have to be paid within 60 days of a ruling.

A rigorous process for compensation that Lomax said should be easy and automatic.

“If you figure I've been a free man since 2006 that's 13 years that it took me to get a point that I could be compensated."

Getting the exonerees financial compensation quickly helps with the after-- and the other bill being considered is about prevention.

Testimony from jailhouse informants is also a big factor of wrongful conviction -- about 20 percent of the cases.

The informants have an incentive to lie which can include leniency in their case.

The law creates a database that tracks when a jailhouse informant talk.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will have access to those records if the informant has testified in other cases.

"There are some jailhouse informants who almost make a career of this,” Armbrust said. “People all over the state are confessing to them and that is incredibly problematic. It's also not something police and prosecutors are in a position to know."

Knowing is something that kept Lomax going for 40 years.

"Every time that door closes you know that you're in jail. It's not like you're living in an unconscious state or anything wrong with that."

There is no compensation or justice that can make up for decades of relationships lost with his children who now have children of their own.

"We have a cordial relationship, but I wasn't there for graduations. I wasn't there for doing milestones in their life."

Making the best of the time he has left to prevent time being stolen from others like him.

For more on the trauma that wrongful incarceration has on a person click here.