Webster receives a state pardon

DNA evidence proved man didn't commit rape

Spent 20 years in prison

Governor's action allows him to seek compensation

January 04, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pardoned Bernard Webster, the man released from prison in November after spending 20 years incarcerated for a rape that DNA evidence proved he did not commit.

The pardon is a necessary first step for the 40-year-old Baltimore man to receive financial compensation from the state.

According to Maryland law, Webster can now go before the Board of Public Works and ask to be reimbursed for the damage that he suffered by spending his adult life in a medium-security prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown.

In 1994, the Board of Public Works gave $300,000 to Kirk N. Bloodsworth, a Cambridge waterman who spent nine years in prison for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old Rosedale girl before DNA evidence led to his release.

Neither Webster nor his attorneys could be reached for comment last night. But in previous interviews, Webster has spoken about his excitement at his new, free life -- a life that now has the governor's official seal of approval.

"It's a tragedy, but I'm so uplifted at what finally happened, what got done," he said last month. Living free is "like you hit the lottery for $500 million."

With the pardon, which the governor signed Monday, Glendening added his name to the slew of officials -- including prosecutors in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office -- who have acknowledged Webster's innocence.

"It having been shown conclusively that Bernard Webster's conviction was in error, (I) hereby grant unto Bernard Webster a full pardon, absolving him from the guilt of the offenses and exempting him from any penalties imposed upon him therefore by law," the governor wrote in his executive order.

Webster was 19 years old when a 47-year-old woman identified him as the man who had raped her in her Towson apartment. Two other eyewitnesses testified that they had seen Webster at the woman's complex.

Despite his claims of innocence and his alibi that he was playing basketball during the time of the attack, a jury convicted Webster of rape. A judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

Since then, the Baltimore man has maintained his innocence. Even though he was to be released next month-- his sentence was shortened because of good behavior -- he kept working to clear his name.

Last year, attorneys in the Maryland Public Defender's new Innocence Project found and tested DNA evidence from his case, which had been preserved for decades at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The test proved Webster's innocence.

On Nov. 7, Webster walked free from the Baltimore County Courts Building. Less than two weeks later, police arrested 36-year-old Darren Lyndell Powell. The DNA that exonerated Webster from the 20-year-old case incriminated Powell, a convicted rapist recently released from prison.

After Webster was released, his attorneys were concerned that their client would have a problem getting compensation.

State law requires a pardon before the Board of Public Works can offer money. Because a judge had overturned Webster's conviction, his attorneys were worried that there would be nothing, technically, on Webster's record for the governor to pardon.

But that legal Catch-22 didn't happened.

Robert N. McDonald, the chief counsel for opinions and advice at the attorney general's office, says the state constitution allows the governor to grant pardons in Webster's situation.

"If the person was wrongfully convicted, if it was an error and they're actually innocent, the governor can state that in the pardon," McDonald said. "That would make them eligible for compensation under another state statute."

Bloodsworth received a pardon from the state, even though his conviction was overturned. He now lives on the Eastern Shore.

McDonald said he has almost completed a legal analysis of the issue, which he plans to release early next week. The attorney general's office writes such letters of advice to help resolve legal questions for state officials.

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