Three Baltimore men who spent 36 years in prison were released after authorities say they were falsely convicted of a 1983 murder. Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were granted a writ of innocence after being convicted of first-degree murder of a middle school student, DeWitt Duckett. According to police, Duckett, 14, was shot and killed for his coveted Georgetown University basketball jacket in November 1983.
Chestnut has maintained his innocence since his arrest and the parole board denied his early release in part because he refused to admit responsibility for the shooting, the state’s attorney said. After he filed an information request this past spring, he discovered new evidence that was kept from his attorneys during trial. He reached out to Baltimore’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which was reviewing old convictions.
Chestnut and Watkins were 16 at the time of their arrest and Stewart was 17. The three teenagers had been skipping high school classes to visit former teachers at Harlem Park Junior High. Their teachers said they were being “silly,” but not threatening. School security escorted them off campus about half an hour before the murder occurred, according to a joint petition filed by the men and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
Watkins lawyer said the three teenagers were each arrested Thanksgiving morning, waking up with police with guns drawn on them. They were convicted based on witness testimony and what prosecutors at the time said was a crucial piece of evidence — a Georgetown jacket found in Chestnut’s bedroom. Chestnut’s jacket had no blood or gunshot residue and his mother was able to produce a receipt. A store clerk also testified that she had purchased it recently, the joint petition said.
Lawyers involved in the case said they were “horrified” to see the amount of exculpatory evidence that was hidden from the defense team and jury. Both the suspects and trial witnesses, all minors, were interrogated by police without their parents. Potential witnesses were interviewed in a group and told to “get their story together,” according to Chestnut’s lawyers. Anonymous calls identifying another shooter were kept from the defense, Mosby said. That teenager was seen after the shooting wearing what appeared to be Duckett’s jacket and confessing to the murder, she said. That suspect has since died and all trial witnesses have since recanted. “We have intentional concealment and misrepresentation of the exculpatory evidence, evidence that would have showed that it was someone else other than these defendants,” Mosby said.
Mosby apologized to the men “I don’t think that today is a victory, it’s a tragedy. And we need to own up to our responsibility for it,” Mosby said. “There’s no way we can repair the damage to these men, when 36 years of their life were stolen from them. You were all arrested on Thanksgiving 1983. Now you are free to spend the holidays with your loved ones for the first time in 36 years,” Mosby said in a press conference. The men are now in their early fifties preparing to enter adulthood on the outside for the first time and at least two have never driven a car before. Now, late in life, they will experience a world very different from the one they were barred from since their teens.