ANNAPOLIS — After serving 19 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of attempted murder, a man was awarded more than $1.6 million in compensation from the state of Maryland.
The Board of Public Works voted unanimously Wednesday to approve funding for Melvin Thomas, now 40, who spent close to half his life in prison and was exonerated in December for an attempted murder charge dating to 2001.
“For all Marylanders who have been imprisoned wrongfully, Mr. Thomas is a victim of a broken criminal justice system that continues to plague the country,” Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, said at the meeting Wednesday. “Although no dollar amount can restore what was taken from him, I assume that today’s action will bring some solace.”
The money will be paid over a period of seven years, and within 30 days, Thomas will receive his first payment of $84,805.
Almost $11,000 of the total sum of money awarded will go toward mental health and financial counseling for Thomas.
On Feb. 26, 2001, a man was shot two times in the face in an alley outside of a local bar in Baltimore City and was hospitalized.
Officers pinpointed Thomas as a leading suspect in the case after conducting limited interviews with patrons and employees of the bar as well as the victim, who then later identified Thomas as the shooter in a photo array lineup.
A jury found Thomas guilty of attempted murder, conspiracy, robbery and gun charges, and he was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
The trial relied heavily on the testimony of one witness, the victim, who eventually recanted his statements in 2018 after he came across the actual shooter, years later at a market in Baltimore, according to previous reporting by the Baltimore Sun.
Defense attorney Booth Ripke brought the case to The Baltimore Conviction Integrity Unit, a division of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, who then reopened the investigation and recommended that the Court grant the joint petition for writ of actual innocence, and the charges were dismissed, according to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office website.
The Conviction Integrity Unit based their investigation into newly acquired evidence as well as the credibility of the victim’s recanted testimony.
“Let me say to Mr. Thomas, I represent the State and the State has wronged you. We ask for your forgiveness and commit to working with you as you gain your freedom and reenter society,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a press release.
The Baltimore Sun reported that at the trial in December, Thomas spoke briefly and thanked the prosecutors and the unit for the work on his case.
“This case presents an example of ensuring justice continues throughout the entire duration of contact with the criminal justice system,” Lauren Lipscomb, Conviction Integrity Unit Division chief, said in a press release in December. “Here we have a mistaken victim who bravely came forward. We investigated this information, determined it was reliable and found compelling evidence corroborating that Mr. Thomas was not involved in this incident. We reached the just result by seeking Mr. Thomas’s release today.”
In 2009, Maryland established a law that would grant defendants who have new evidence in their case the right to request new court hearings.
A few years later, then-Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein established the Conviction Integrity Unit as a way to investigate cases of people who claim they were wrongfully convicted.
Current state’s attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, expanded the unit in 2018 to include a grant-funded investigator to focus on claims of actual innocence and wrongful conviction, according to the unit’s website.
The website also states that the unit handles other matters such as petitions for expungement, modification motions, habeas petitions, other post-sentencing matters, as well as reviewing all Maryland Public Information Act requests from incarcerated individuals, which averages about 300 requests a year.
The Maryland General Assembly passed the Walter Lomax Act (SB14), sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, during the 2021 session. The law repeals provisions that allow the Board of Public Works to use their discretion to grant payments to individuals who have been, “erroneously convicted, sentenced, and confined in the State for a crime the person did not commit”.
The board had discretion to determine the amount of funds received as well as the timeline of compensation. This law now establishes guidelines, so now the board still has the discretion to approve or disapprove the funds, but they do not get to decide the numbers.
Walter Lomax served nearly 40 years in prison for the murder of Robert Brewer in 1967 — a crime that he did not commit.
At the time, Lomax’s hand was in a cast that would have made firing a gun nearly impossible, yet five witnesses identified him as the shooter, and an all-white jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison, as reported previously by Capital News Service.
Lomax was denied new trials repeatedly, and in the 1990’s, a nonprofit, Centurion, that is dedicated to “vindication of the wrongly convicted,” started to listen to Lomax and investigate his case.
Ripke, the same attorney who would later help Thomas, as well as lawyer Larry Nathans, worked to reopen Lomax’s case and found substantial new evidence that was not provided to the judge or defense in the original trial and did not match Lomax as the shooter.
In April 2014, the then 67-year-old, was exonerated.
Once out of prison, Lomax started the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated “to advocate and promote human and sensible criminal justice.”
“I am honored and humbled that this bill has been named the Walter Lomax Act,” Lomax testified at a Feb. 4 committee hearing and said he is very fortunate to be able to testify this year as he suffered a heart attack and stroke inside the State House prior to testifying on the same bill in the 2020 legislative session.
Prior to the passage of this bill, Maryland law did not have specific requirements or standards for compensating wrongfully convicted individuals.
“A wrongly convicted and incarcerated individual who has been exonerated has many urgent needs,” Kelley testified during the committee hearing. “All of which cost money.”
The law specifies that individuals shall receive an amount, “equal to the product of the total number of days that the individual was wrongfully confined after the erroneous conviction multiplied by a daily rate of the state’s most recent annual median household income… .”
The governor signed the bill April 13 and it will go into effect July 1.