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$2.9 Million Paid by Maryland to Exonerated Former Prisoner

A former Maryland prisoner’s January 2023 exoneration marked the end of a long and painful chapter in a 1981 double murder he was unjustly convicted of. On July 5, 2023, state authorities awarded John Huffington, 61, nearly $2.9 million for 32 years he spent wrongfully imprisoned, including a decade on death row.

The compensation, determined by an administrative law judge at $91,431 annually, stems from a 2021 state law permitting those wrongly accused to seek financial compensation. That same year, the Maryland Court of Appeals—the state’s Supreme Court—disbarred the prosecutor who pursued Huffington’s conviction, former Harford County state’s attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, citing his evidence suppression and other grave errors.

When the three members of the state Board of Public Works panel approved Huffington’s award, state Comptroller Brooke E. Lierman (D) brought her 10-year-old son along for the occasion “because I wanted him to witness and understand that government makes massive failures sometimes, but we have to put people in place to try to correct those,” she said.

Gov. Wes Moore (D), who counts Huffington as a friend and keeps in his office a signed copy of a book the former prisoner wrote, commended the exoneree for emerging from prison without bitterness. He said Huffington’s engagement with community organizations and criminal justice panels showcased his resilience, as did his work with his fellow former prisoners through reentry assistance and vocational training.

Huffington’s ordeal began at age 18, when he was incarcerated for the 1981 murders of Diane Becker and Joseph Hudson in Abingdon. A second suspect, who testified against Huffington, was convicted of first-degree murder and served 27 years. His wrongful conviction was fueled in part by expert testimony matching hair from the crime scene to his own, a forensic analysis later discredited as scientifically unreliable. But his fingerprints were found on a vodka bottle used in the crime, and a co-suspect’s testimony further complicated matters.

In 2013, DNA testing absolved Huffington of the crime. His conviction was tossed and a new trial ordered. However, in 2017, he opted for an Alford plea—acknowledging there was sufficient evidence to convict him without admitting guilt. He was sentenced to 32 years, time already served, and released. A subsequent pardon from former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in January 2023 brought his case to a close.

During his years in prison, Huffington missed his mother’s 2008 funeral. Without a chance to work and save, he lacks a pension or retirement fund. His payment hinged on the Walter Lomax Act of 2021, named for another exoneree who fought for its passage. The law awards compensation for each year of wrongful incarceration and extends other benefits like housing, healthcare, education and court fee reimbursement.

The judges who disbarred Cassilly found him guilty of “intentionally dishonest misconduct,” including “fail[ure] to disclose exculpatory evidence as a prosecutor for over a decade” in Huffington’s case. See: Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Joseph Ignatius Cassilly, Misc. Docket AG No. 31 (September Term, 2020). Insisting he did nothing wrong, Cassilly blamed his censure on “the whole anti-criminal justice movement, where the cops are the bad guys and the prosecutors are the bad guys.”  


Additional sources: Baltimore Sun, Washington Post

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