Sealed Evidence Kept Three Black Men Behind Bars for 36 Years

Three black men were released from a Baltimore prison on November 25, after each spending 36 years behind bars for a murder they did not commit.

Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart walked free Monday, fully exonerated of the 1983 murder of DeWitt Duckett, a ninth-grade student at Harlem Park Junior High School, over a Georgetown University Starter jacket.

What was reported back in 1983

  • Fourteen-year-old Dewitt Duckett was shot in the neck in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School on November 18, 1983, with the shooter taking off with his Georgetown jacket. Dewitt was the first person ever killed inside a Baltimore school.

  • According to The Washington Post, Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, all high school students, played hooky that day and were fooling around at the Harlem Park, visiting siblings and chatting with former teachers before being kicked off the grounds prior to the shooting. Prosecutors later argued that the boys must have snuck back into the school to commit the murder.

  • The lead detective in the case, Donald Kincaid, says he received information from a student that the 16-year-old boys were responsible for the murder. When the home of Chestnut and the other boys was searched, they found a Georgetown Starter jacket that matched the description of Duckett’s in Chestnut’s closet.

  • According to Chestnut, his mother produced a receipt for the jacket. Furthermore, the jacket had no blood or physical evidence to tie it to Duckett or the crime.

  • On Thanksgiving Day of 1983, Chestnut, along with Watkins and Stewart were taken from their homes and charged with Duckett’s murder.

  • The then-assistant attorney general, Jonathan Shoup presented the jacket found in Chestnut’s closet as being Dewitt’s, despite the lack of evidence.

  • In 1984, Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were convicted of murder and each given life sentences.

What we now know

  • Police documents reveal that the trial witnesses in the case had failed to identify the defendants twice in photo lineups.

  • Prosecutors now say that police reports show that several witnesses had identified another young man of the shooting, 18-year-old Michael Willis. One student identified Willis to authorities immediately and another saw him run from the scene and discard a handgun, according to The Washington Post. Another witness heard Willis confess to the murder while yet another saw Willis wearing the Georgetown jacket that night.

  • None of this exculpatory evidence was turned over to the defense, and a judge sealed the police reports that would cast doubt on the three boys’ guilt, according to The Washington Post. “It’s just outrageous,” Lauren Lipscomb, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, told The Washington Post.

How did we get here?

Despite the decades behind bars, Chestnut never stopped trying to prove his innocence. Upon seeing Baltimore’s State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby on television talking about the Conviction Integrity Unit, which looks into wrongful convictions, he wrote her department, attaching new evidence he had uncovered of witnesses identifying Willis as committing the murder, according to The Washington Post.

Chestnut also made a public records request to the Maryland attorney general which was granted. Those records, that had been sealed for over 30 years, produced the exculpatory evidence that would exonerate the three men, who are now in their fifties.

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

Mosby visited the three men in prison to give them the news personally of their impending release, telling the men, “I’m sorry. The system failed them. They should have never had to see the inside of a jail cell. We will do everything in our power not only to release them, but to support them as they re-acclimate into society.”

On Monday, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters released the three, announcing their innocence.

“On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologize,” said Peters.

What now?

  • The state of Maryland has no wrongful conviction compensation system, but such awards are not restricted, according to The Washington Post. In October, Maryland awarded five men who were wrongly convicted and served a combined 120 years in prison a total of $9M, which amounts to $78,916 for every year of incarceration, reported the Baltimore Sun. Neither Chestnut, Watkins nor Stewart have stated if they look to pursue compensation from the state.

  • There is also little to no support for the wrongfully convicted when they get out of prison, according to Mosby. “I think it’s important and incumbent on us as the system that has wronged them, to be able to take accountability. We’re excited to show that we’re going to support them,” she told The Washington Post.

  • Willis, the man identified by witnesses as fleeing the scene of the murder, was shot and killed back in 2002. He was 37. At the time of his death, he had a number of charges for assault and drugs on his record, according to The Washington Post.

  • Assistant district attorney Shoup, who failed to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense, died in 2016.

  • Lead detective Kincaid retired from the force in 1990 and still claims he did nothing wrong in his investigation, telling The Washington Post, “What would I get out of that?” Kincaid asked Monday. “You think for one minute I want to send three young boys to prison for the rest of their life … I didn’t know those boys. I didn’t know them from Adam. Why would I want to do something like that?” Despite this, Lipscomb says the prosecution witnesses were coached to identify Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, a charge Kincaid denies.

  • Conviction Integrity Units are spreading, with nearly 50 prosecutors instituting them nation-wide.