State to pay $900,000 to man wrongly imprisoned

Webster served 20 years for rape he didn't commit

January 09, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore man who spent 20 years in prison for a rape he did not commit will receive $900,000 from the state in compensation, or $45,000 for each year he spent locked inside the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

The state Board of Public Works approved the payment yesterday, and it outlined a plan in which the state will send two $45,000 payments a year to Bernard Webster for the next 10 years. The money will come from the board's contingency fund, which is typically used for emergency spending.

"It is unfortunate when a man stays in jail who is innocent," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sits on the board with the governor and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. "I think it was a fair amount of money."

Webster, 40, was released from prison Nov. 7 after the state public defender's office discovered DNA evidence that proved he could not have committed the 1982 crime. He was 19 when a 47-year-old woman identified him as the man who attacked her in her Towson apartment.

"There's no way the loss of liberty for all those years can ever be made up," said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who took up Webster's cause after his release. "I just hope that people will give him good advice and that he will use [the money] to develop the skills that he needs."

Webster, who sat next to his attorneys at the crowded Board of Public Works meeting in the State House yesterday, declined to comment. Neither he nor his lawyers spoke during the meeting, and the board approved the compensation payments without discussion.

"Obviously, we're pleased," said attorney Ralph S. Tyler, who represented Webster in his effort to secure a pardon from the governor and compensation from the state.

Pardon from governor

Under state law, the Board of Public Works can grant compensation to someone who has been wrongly incarcerated only if that person has a pardon from the governor.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening officially pardoned Webster on Dec. 30, noting that it has "been shown conclusively that Bernard Webster's conviction was in error."

Yesterday, a spokeswoman said Glendening would not comment further on Webster's case.

The Board of Public Works has authorized payment for wrongful convictions only three other times in recent history.

In 1994, it gave $300,000 to Kirk N. Bloodsworth for his nine years in prison, seven of which the Cambridge waterman spent on death row. Bloodsworth had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, but he was exonerated by DNA evidence.

Before that, the board authorized $250,000 for Leslie A. Vass, a Baltimore man who was released from prison in 1984 after serving 10 years for a robbery that prosecutors acknowledged he did not commit.

Also in 1984, the board gave $16,500 to Cornell Avery Estes, who was 15 when he was sentenced in 1979 to life in prison for stabbing a woman to death on Security Boulevard. Less than a year after Estes' conviction, somebody else confessed to the murder and Estes was released.

Life outside prison

Tyler said these cases helped guide Webster's application for compensation. Schaefer said it also helped persuade board members that the requested payment was appropriate.

State law says the Board of Public Works can pay only "actual damages," which means it can compensate lost wages, for example, but cannot pay for pain and suffering. Tyler said he did not believe the payments to Webster are taxable.

In the two months since Webster was released, he has collected the paperwork necessary for life outside prison, such as a Social Security card and a birth certificate. He has found a place to live, started a job as a prep chef and plans to take computer classes.

"I just hope it plays out well for him in the second half of his life," said Kelley, the Baltimore County senator.

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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