Man is set free after 39 years behind bars

Judge overturns life sentence in '67 killing

December 14, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

At 4:15 p.m. yesterday, 39 years to the day after he was arrested for a robbery and murder he says he did not commit, Walter Lomax walked out of Baltimore Circuit Court a free man.

Beaming and surrounded by jubilant relatives and friends, he said, "Even though it's my freedom, it's their moment because they've supported me all these years."

Hours earlier, a judge had granted the 59-year-old's motion to reopen his long-closed case, in which he was convicted of a convenience store robbery and killing that his lawyers say he could not have committed because his right arm was in a thick cast at the time.

Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin said yesterday that it was "in the interest of justice" to reopen Lomax's case, and then she overturned his life prison term and resentenced him to time served. At times emotional during her lengthy remarks, Rasin repeatedly said Lomax was a good man and wished him luck in his new life.

Lomax's assertion of innocence and claims of ineffective trial and appellate lawyers were accompanied by a long, unblemished prison record that included work release and overnight family visits in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He was recommended for parole four times but kept behind bars by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision in 1995 not to parole any "lifers" except those who were dying.

While in prison, the high school dropout educated himself, became a writer and editor of a prison newsletter, and amassed dozens of certificates of achievement and letters of support, some from politicians.

"As I have told the Governor and others, none of us in the community believe you committed the crime for which you're incarcerated," Del. Clarence Davis of Baltimore wrote in May 2002. "As such we remain steadfast in our unequivocal support for your freedom."

Noting the age of the case, the Baltimore state's attorney's office did not oppose the motion to reopen or the decision to release Lomax. But Assistant State's Attorney Robyne Szokoly said at yesterday's hearing that the victim's family was distraught over the release and is still convinced of Lomax's guilt.

Rasin acknowledged that she could never change the minds of the victim's relatives. However, she said, she could not ignore the role race played in the case.

Lomax was convicted of killing Robert Brewer, a 56-year-old convenience store manager, during a Dec. 2, 1967, robbery in South Baltimore -- amid a wave of robberies in the area and as racial tension swept the city. Police officers rounded up young black men and asked about 75 witnesses from the various South Baltimore robberies to identify suspects.

Lomax went to trial only in the in Dec. 2 robbery-murder. At his trial, five white witnesses identified him as the killer, though none said anything about a cast. No other evidence was presented, and not a single police officer testified.

Yesterday, Rasin said such cross-racial identification is unreliable.

"There is a significant likelihood, definitely a possibility, that Mr. Lomax would be acquitted" if he were on trial today, Rasin said.

A tall man in the back row of the courtroom nodded emphatically as Rasin spoke. He was one of the first to hug Lomax after his release. He was Michael Austin, another Baltimore man who won his freedom after decades in prison by convincing a judge of the possibility of his innocence.

Austin, 58, said he knew Lomax's family as a boy and befriended Lomax when they were behind bars. Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit organization that helps people it believes have been wrongly convicted, helped win Austin's release in December 2001, after he had served 27 years of a life sentence on a murder conviction based largely on one witness' account.

Lomax is the 40th person Centurion has helped free and shares the record with a Pennsylvania man for having spent the most time behind bars of any of Centurion's clients.

Jim McCloskey, head of Centurion, said he was "blown away" by Lomax. "Not only is he innocent, but he is such a gentleman, so dignified," McCloskey said. "How could he be this way after so many years of being in a harsh environment?"

Booth Ripke, who along with Larry Nathans also represented Austin, said he took Lomax's case because it "leapt off the pages. It wasn't a close call at all."

The lawyers and McCloskey vowed to help smooth Lomax's transition. Austin, who released a jazz CD this year and speaks frequently about his ordeal, also said he would help his friend adjust to freedom.

Lomax will live with his older sister Carolyn Lomax at her rowhouse just east of Charles Village.

Dozens of "Welcome Home" balloons and banners decorated the front porch there yesterday evening, and Carolyn Lomax busied herself in the kitchen. She and others prepared a feast of steamed shrimp, seafood pasta, string beans and other family specialties.

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