Walter Lomax spent almost 40 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A judge, early last month, overturned his conviction and earlier this month, his writ of actual innocence was approved. He had been accused of murdering a store manager in 1967. A judge released Lomax in 2007, but it wasn’t until this year that the guilty verdict was taken off of his record. For the first time in half a century, he was officially an innocent man, “I spent two-thirds of my life in there,” he said.
At the age of 20, Lomax was thrown in jail, now 67, he is free again, “This is just truly a great moment,” he said.
In 2006, a judge commuted his sentence citing overwhelming evidence that was never introduced at trial. Lomax has dedicated his life, since release, to helping others like him. He now runs the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, fighting to remove the governor from the parole process for those serving life, “A life sentence is parollable after a period of time. Over the years that got lost and people just felt that if you had a life sentence, that’s [that].”
Despite being wrongfully convicted, Lomax says his time behind bars taught him many lessons he needed to fulfill his destiny to help others. He has also become a mentor to newly released prisoners seeking to re-enter society.
On December 2, 1967, an armed man robbed Giles Food Market in Baltimore City, Maryland. The gunman shot and killed 56-year-old Robert Brewer, the night manager, then emptied the cash register and fled on foot. Officer William West, alerted to the crime by a witness, gave chase and fired several gunshots missing the robber, who escaped.
At the time, a wave of robberies and shootings by African American perpetrators generated racial tension in the community and police were routinely conducting mass lineups. Dozens of people were being brought to police stations to view lineups. On December 12, ten days after the crime, Walter Lomax, 20, who had a record for assault and car theft, came to the police station thinking there was a warrant out for his arrest. He found that the warrant was for his brother, who failed to pay his child support. Lomax was pulled into the lineups. Three witnesses identified him. Lomax was also identified by witnesses and charged with two other unrelated murders, 46-year-old Melvin Saunders on Nov. 27, 1967, and 45-year-old Jesse Atkinson, murdered in a tavern a few hours before Brewer was killed.
Lomax went on trial for the murder of Brewer in 1968. Five witnesses, all of whom were white, identified Lomax, who is black. Three were inside the store and two outside in a vehicle. Two store clerks, who were also there, were unable to identify Lomax. No forensic evidence linked Lomax to the crime. Lomax’s defense introduced evidence that at the time of the crime, Lomax had a cast on his right hand – the hand that witnesses said the gunman used to shoot Brewer. None of the witnesses recalled anything strange about the gunman’s hand.
Lomax was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and attempted armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison. The charges for the other two murders were eventually dismissed. In 1969, his conviction was upheld by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. 15 years later, in 1985, Lomax filed a request for a new trial, but was dismissed without a hearing. Then, in 1995, Lomax, without a lawyer, filed another petition for a new trial and was denied in 1996.
Centurion Ministries, a non-profit organization that investigates wrongful convictions, took up Lomax’s case. In 2006, Lomax, now represented by lawyers, filed a motion to reopen his case and modify his sentence. The new motions presented expanded evidence that Lomax’s hand was in a cast. On November 25, 1967, Lomax was chaperoning his sister at a dance and was attacked by youths. He was stabbed in the right hand so hard it fractured his bone. He was also kicked repeatedly and suffered bruised ribs and had difficulty walking for at least 2 weeks. About 10 hours before Brewer’s murder, Lomax was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s clinic where a 15-layer plastic splint was placed on his right hand and arm.
In late 2006, Judge Gale Rasin found that Lomax’s trial attorney had provided unconstitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to present thorough evidence of his injury and failing to call two police officers who obtained witness descriptions at odds with Lomax. He also failed to call the officer who chased the suspect. Lomax could not have outrun the officer due to his injuries. Lomax had earned his GED and an Associate Degree and had taken creative writing courses, while in prison. He was a tutor and the editor of a prison newsletter, as well. He was resentenced to time served and released.
In 2009, a new law went into effect in Maryland allowing defendants to contend they had new evidence of innocence and request hearings. In 2012, Baltimore City State Attorney Gregg Bernstein, newly-elected, established a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate claims of innocence. Lomax requested his case be re-examined. The investigation determined that the prosecution had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. The prosecution joined the defense in requesting Lomax’s convictions be vacated, they wrote: “Each of these items constitutes newly discovered evidence [that] creates a substantial or significant possibility” that Lomax would have been acquitted. The evidence included a witness who identified a different mugshot as the perpetrator.
In 2014, Lomax’s lawyers filed a writ of actual innocence. The prosecution concurred with the defense and on April 2nd, Lomax’s charges were dismissed.