Baltimore’s State’s Attorney’s office houses a Conviction Integrity Unit that addresses wrongful convictions. Eddie Conway talked to Marilyn Mosby about their goals for the unit and to Walter Lomax and Michael Austin, both wrongfully convicted and exonerated, about their losses and how the justice system needs to change.
LAUREN LIPSCOMB: I’ll never forget Mr. MacPherson turning to me and saying, “Please don’t let my brother and I die in here for a crime we didn’t commit.”
EDDIE CONWAY: How did that make you feel?
LAUREN LIPSCOMB: Made me feel that I needed to make sure that I did my job to the best of my ability. And by the point we had talked to them, we had a pretty good idea that things were looking like they probably were not involved. And so it makes you work even harder, makes you work even harder. As a prosecutor, you do not want someone to be in prison for a crime that they didn’t commit. That’s not justice.
EDDIE CONWAY: May 2019 there has been 2448 exonerations in the United States. According to the national registry of exonerations. Though registration shows that more than half of the exonerations in [inaudible 00:01:32] perjury or false accusations. Almost half of the exonerations in the National Database of black defendants.
MIKE AUSTIN: 90% of the prosecutors United States are white. 90%. Most of those prosecutors go into politics. That’s why DC is crazy like it is now. But I was a poor black kid from the projects, and I was easy prey. And they come into the community and if you don’t have an alibi and if you can see where you was at a particular time, you might get a murder, armed robbery, rape, all kinds of charges because they have a thing when they have a lot of charges, they just go out in the black community, start hand-picking people and say, “You fit the description. I have a witness.” And so in the state of Maryland you only need one witness to convict.
EDDIE CONWAY: These are the numbers. But there are stories behind these numbers. Stories of lost lives and dysfunctional justice system and the cost of fame.
MIKE AUSTIN: The name of this, We in This Together, that was the first song I wrote when I came home.
EDDIE CONWAY: Michael Austin spent 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, falsely accused of a murder and robbery.
MIKE AUSTIN: That whole ordeal really enlightens you. Shen you have an experience like that it enlightens you. Or it’s going to destroy you. But it enlightened me. And because I was so angry, I just felt, “I can’t let you win. I’m not going to let you win this fight.” And we’re sitting there and we’re talking. And he said, “Well, we have a witness that identifies you as the shooter in the murder of Roy Killum at the Crown Food Market.” I said, “You have a witness?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you got the wrong man.” They said, “Well, the witness clearly identified your picture and said you was the one who shoot Roy Killum.”
EDDIE CONWAY: In Baltimore, the state’s attorney office, which operates the only Conviction Integrity Unit in this state, exonerated brothers Keith Junior Farrison MacPherson and Eric Simmons, convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison.
MARILYN MOSBY: It is my hope that now that both of you are set free, that you’re able to return home, heal, adjust to your rightly deserved freedom and live your lives to the fullest.
EDDIE CONWAY: Exonerees like MacPherson and Simmons are considered lucky to have gotten out when so many other innocent people are still in prison. But what have they lost? What happens after they’re free? What are the costs to cities and taxpayers and jurisdictions for these wrongful convictions?
MARILYN MOSBY: Some of these men had never… They were incarcerated when their sons were three years old. And they’re coming out and they their grandparents, right? And they’ve missed all of their child’s life. And so one of the things that I thought was incredibly important as the representative of a system that has failed them was to apologize.
EDDIE CONWY: A study by George Washington University looks at the cost to taxpayers for 2,265 exonerees. The payout was 2.2 billion of public funds. Police are protected by qualified immunity prosecutors or shield by absolute immunity. Walter Lomax was wrongly convicted for the murder of Robert Brewer. He spent nearly 40 years in prison before being exonerated at age 59.
WALTER LOMAX: Actually, I was never arrested. The police officers had come to my mother’s home with the warrant allegedly for my arrest. We did find out much later that the warrant wasn’t actually for me, it was for my brother for non-support. At the time they were rounding up hundreds of black men away in the city placing them in lineups. And I’m a young black man, so I fit that profile and so they kept me. The death penalty was still in existence, and it was a capital case. It’s just fortunate that the jury came back without capital punishment.
EDDIE CONWAY: How do exonerees adjust to societal changes after having spent most of their life in prisons?
WALTER LOMAX: To be quite honest, it’s something that even if I were to state just some things, the fact of it is, and the reality of it is, is that unless one has had that experience, they won’t be able to fathom what that was really like. The loss of my younger brother who was murdered. The loss of both of my parents. The loss of one of my grandchildren. To have my children grow up, and they have children. It’s just, let me see if I can maybe… An average Joe may be able to relate to this.
You’re gone for 40 years. Your whole family grows up. They have experiences. They have birthdays. They have weddings. They have milestones, right? Graduations, children born. And while all these things are taking place, they are right there participating in all of these activities. Now you come home, and you’re sitting at a gathering and they’re reminiscing on. You’re trying to have fun, but you wasn’t a part of that.
MIKE AUSTIN: Had the box in my hand. But I’m walking like I have shackles on my ankle and one of the correctional officers said, “Mike, why are you walking like you got shot?” I’ll say, “Well that’s for the last one is that’s how I’ve been.” And then from that moment I realized how conditioned I was. Took me about 11 years before I stopped feeling that I was connected.
EDDIE CONWAY: State’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, has taken the Conviction Integrity Unit into a comprehensive unit that gives exonerees support at all levels.
MARILYN MOSBY: Around 2015, 2016, what we did is understanding that our job and the responsibility of prosecutors is not just to advocate for those individuals that we believe have committed an offense, but as our pursuit of justice. That’s the mission of a prosecutor. We have a responsibility to exonerate those that have been wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated. So what we did is we rebranded what was a previous Conviction Integrity Unit under the prior administration, which was a Conviction Integrity Unit in name only. There was no sort of formal review process for claims of actual innocence. So we set up a review process.
I traveled all across the country to different district attorney’s offices to see what best practices we can employ in Baltimore. And I had the opportunity to sit down with the late, great Ken Thompson from Brooklyn and we studied some of the practices in Texas. I recruited a phenomenal attorney within the office to lead that division, Lauren Lipscomb, who has done an outstanding job. And we set up a review process. An actual review process so that we could look at, analyze, assess, and re-investigate claims of actual innocence. And we’re actually the only Conviction Integrity Unit in the entire state of Maryland out of a state’s attorney’s office.
I can tell you that one of the things that my Conviction Integrity Unit is in the process of developing is a re-entry program for these exonerees. So taking it to the next level, right? So you apologize. You right the wrongs of the past as a prosecutor. Then you ensure that we have the resources by collaborating with Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Then you ensure that it never happens again by partnering with the Quattro Center to do a root cause analysis to see what went wrong and how we can rectify it. And then beyond that is what are we going to do to ensure that when that happens and if that happens, people are able to assimilate back into society.
MIKE AUSTIN: No man, no. If they gave me a billion that’s not going to make me… This is what happened. I mean, damn, I’m sorry. This is what happened with the money. I invested it. I gave my family some. I give Center administered money every year. And I do a lot of traveling, man. I bought two houses. But none of those things made me feel happy. Because what person can determine your worth for 27 years? But God, I mean, what human beings are going to say, “Well, he did 27, let’s give him…” Is that how much your life’s worth?