Baltimore, Maryland: Three men exonerated after 36 years behind bars for wrongful murder conviction

On Monday, a judge in Baltimore, Maryland, declared three men innocent of a murder they were wrongfully convicted of 36 years ago and sentenced to life in prison. Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were teenagers when they were arrested on Thanksgiving Day 1983 for the murder of a 14-year-old junior high school student. When they walked out of prison on Monday, they were men in their early fifties, having spent more than two-thirds of their lives incarcerated.

“On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologize,” Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters told the men. “We’re adjourned.” The packed courtroom erupted in applause. At 5:15 p.m., Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart walked out the courtroom as free men, into the arms of weeping relatives.

The trio’s harrowing experience was the direct result of a rush to solve a brutal crime, abetted by gross misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors. The three had always maintained their innocence and had been denied early release in part because they refused to admit to a crime they did not commit.

Chestnut, in particular, never gave up on the men’s case, and filed an information request that led to the discovery of new evidence that was kept from his attorneys during their trial. He contacted Baltimore’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which was reviewing old convictions. The unit in turn enlisted the aid of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which became involved with the men’s defense.

The three African-American teenagers were charged with the November 18, 1983, murder of DeWitt Duckett as he walked down the hallway of his middle school. According to authorities, the boys wanted Duckett’s Georgetown University basketball jacket. The three boys had skipped school that day and had been at the school visiting friends until a security guard kicked them out.

They left 30 minutes before the attack on Duckett as he walked down the hall with friends at Harlem Park Junior High School. After an apparent struggle, he was shot in the neck with a .22-caliber handgun. He collapsed and died two hours later.

State’s Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said that new evidence obtained as a result of Chestnut’s request revealed that multiple witnesses had actually identified a different person, Michael Willis, 18 at the time, as the gunman. One student identified him immediately, one saw him discard the weapon, one heard him confess to the crime and another saw him wearing a Georgetown jacket. Willis died in a shooting in 2002. In 1984, then-Assistant State’s Attorney Jonathan Shoupe falsely told the court the state had no such reports.

The file obtained by Chestnut also showed that four juvenile witnesses, who told the court that the three teens charged had been involved in the shooting, had failed multiple times to identify them in photo arrays before the trial.

According to court documents, they told investigators that they had been coached and pressured by police officers to implicate the boys. The witnesses, all minors, were interviewed in a group and told to “get their story together,” according to Chestnut’s lawyers. Both the suspects and witnesses met with police officers a number of times without their parents present. All trial witnesses have subsequently recanted their testimony.

Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were convicted on the basis of this coerced evidence as well as police discovery of a Georgetown jacket found in Chestnut’s bedroom. This “prize” evidence, however, had no blood or gunshot residue. In addition, his mother produced a receipt for the jacket and a store clerk testified that she had purchased it recently.

“It made me angry,” Chestnut said after his release. “Just the fact that everything was concealed all those years. I knew that they didn’t want to reveal those things.”

Donald Kincaid, the lead detective on the case, was surprised that the men were being exonerated. He denied any improprieties in relation to the police investigation. “What would I get out that?” Kinkaid asked Monday, as quoted by the Washington Post. “You think for one minute I want to send three young boys to prison for the rest of their life?” He claims he does not recall Willis as a suspect and denies withholding information. He said that Mosby was “trying to make every one of us [police] look like liars and cheats. That’s crazy.”

It is valuable to consider the environment at the time of the young men’s arrest. The 1980s saw an unprecedented surge of financial wealth accompanied by rapidly growing social inequality. Housing and schools in cities like Baltimore were starved of funding and decaying. A rise in crime, driven by poverty and unemployment, was met with escalating police violence, which was disproportionately meted out in black and Latino neighborhoods.

In 1989 in New York City, four black youths and one Latino boy—all between the ages of 14 and 16—were apprehended, interrogated and eventually indicted and convicted on charges of assault, robbery, riot and the rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman, in Manhattan’s Central Park.

The youth, who came to be known as the Central Park Five, served from six to 14 years. They were all eventually exonerated. It is not difficult to see the parallels with the Baltimore case.

Such cases are not anomalies. In many cities across the US, prosecutors now have specialized teams like Baltimore’s Conviction Integrity Unit to look at evidence in likely thousands of cases in which individuals have been tried and convicted on the basis of police and prosecutorial misconduct that landed innocent people in jail. Dozens have been exonerated nationwide; in Baltimore alone, Mosby’s office has cleared six other people of serious crimes since she took over the unit.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider the travesty of justice in the cases of Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, or the Central Park Five, as the result of the actions of a few “bad apples” in police departments and prosecutor’s offices. As it was in the 1980s, the “justice” system is a class-based operation in 21st century America, in which the state hands down convictions disproportionately to workers, the poor and society’s most vulnerable.

Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said of the Baltimore exonerations, “Everyone involved in this case—school officials, police, prosecutors, jurors, the media, and the community—rushed to judgment and allowed their tunnel vision to obscure obvious problems with the evidence.”

The state of Maryland currently does not have legislation to determine compensation for those falsely convicted and incarcerated. The process is directed by the state’s Board of Public Works, which recently awarded $9 million in payments to five men who were wrongly imprisoned for decades.

Whatever the compensation, it cannot make up for robbing innocent individuals of much of their adult lives. At the press conference after their release, Watkins said, “This should never have happened. This fight is not over. You all will hear from us again.”

“It’s a lot of guys that I left behind, that are in the same situation that I’m in,” Chestnut said. “They need a voice. I had an opportunity, by the grace of God, to have someone who heard me.”