Eleven men convicted and later exonerated voice support for two bills to help wrongfully convicted

Posted at 6:26 PM, Jan 15, 2020

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Eleven men who spent a total of 250 years in prison for crimes they did not commit shared their powerful stories at the State Capital and voiced their support for two bills set to help the wrongfully convicted.

Ransom Watkins and Alfred Chestnut joined the nine others, discussing their journey's to exoneration. Watkins, Chestnut and another man spent 36 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of a 14 year boy in 1983.

"Things that I have seen as a kid, no kid should see," Watkins said.

Last November, the three men were exonerated and released. But, they haven't been compensated, which makes the adjustment to their new lives nearly impossible.

“That dollar amount is to try and help you put your life back together,” Watkins said. “It doesn't completely put your life back together. I still need counseling. There's a whole lot of things I need.”

The two bills set to be introduced in both chambers of the state legislature look to fix the state's compensation law and address the use of jailhouse witnesses.

Democratic State Sen. Will Smith is proposing a law that will address the use of jailhouse witness who offer testimony against a defendant and typically expect leniency or other benefits, which creates a strong incentive to lie. Sen Smith is looking to make the process more transparent in hopes to level the playing field.

"It's a small step that will go a long way ensuring folks have a shot at justice," he said.

Democratic Delegate Kathleen Dumais is also introducing a bill in the state house to fix the state's compensation law. Currently, there is no specified amount or formula in place to determine how a exoneree is compensated. Under state law, the power to award an exoneree is in the hands of the Board of Public Works--a body--opponents say are slow to pay the wrongfully convicted.

Dumais' bill looks to speed up that process shifting BPW's power to a judge and create a formula on how much someone should get paid.

"A bill will have some time deadlines on how long it can wait," Dumais said. "Unfortunately, I don't think it will happen in the first ten days after someone is released but it will certainly happen within the first 60 to 90 days."

Watkins and the others believe more needs to be done to address a broken justice system but says this is hopefully a start that will be the spark to inspire more change.

Both bills are expected to be officially introduced next month.