Three men serving life sentences for a 1983 murder they did not commit were exonerated Monday, just six months after one of them wrote to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby asking her to investigate their convictions.
The men spent 36 years in prison.
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were charged as teens for the murder of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School, according to a news release from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. DeWitt was allegedly killed for his Georgetown team jacket; Chestnut had a similar one.
The three were convicted in 1984 largely based on testimony from school officials that they were in the school building that day though they were no longer students there, as well as on testimony from four teenage witnesses who initially told police that only one person had committed the crime, according to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which worked on the men’s case.
A letter from Chestnut to the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office in May prompted a reinvestigation; Mosby visited the men Friday to inform them she would ask that their convictions be vacated.
The new investigation confirmed that the boys had left the school before the shooting, that Chestnut’s jacket had been purchased by his mother and that the teenage eyewitnesses had been “heavily coached” and recanted their statements, according to the OPD release.
“This was a high profile case involving tragic violence on school grounds, in which the police ignored evidence from their own investigation suggesting these boys were innocent,” Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said Monday in a statement. “As a result, the three men walking free today each lost decades of their life – decades when others their age started families, established careers, and experienced the joys and tribulations of entering and experiencing adulthood. While we are pleased to have their names cleared and their freedom restored, nothing can provide Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Watkins with time that they have lost.”
In addition to the Conviction Integrity Unit, the University of Baltimore School of Law Innocence Project Clinic and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) worked on the case.
Chestnut was represented by a public defender and the UB clinic, Watkins was represented by attorney Christopher C. Nieto and the MAIP and Stewart was represented by Nathans & Biddle LLP.
“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,” MAIP Executive Director Shawn Armbrust said in a statement.
Pressure to solve Duckett’s murder was intense. Early on Thanksgiving Day 1983, Baltimore police arrested Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart. They were charged as adults with murder.
Several months later, all three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. All three insisted they were innocent.
Gradually, as the decades passed, two of the men gave up hope of ever seeing the outside world again. But Alfred Chestnut, now 52, kept pushing. In May, he sent a handwritten letter to the Baltimore state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, after seeing city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby discussing the unit on television, saying it was designed to check out claims of wrongful convictions. Chestnut included new evidence he’d uncovered last year that incriminated the man authorities now say was the actual shooter.
“It’s been a nightmare from the beginning,” Chestnut told The Washington Post Sunday. He said watching four teenagers testify at trial that he shot Duckett, a neighborhood friend, “was unreal to me.”
Said Chestnut: “Even though it was a struggle, I never gave up.”
The release of Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart marks the seventh, eighth and ninth exonerations enabled by Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit since she took office in 2015.
Police reports from 1983 revealed that numerous witnesses told Baltimore investigators that Michael Willis, then 18, was the shooter, prosecutors now say. One student identified him immediately, one saw him run and discard a handgun as police pulled up to Harlem Park Junior High School, one heard him confess to the shooting and one saw him wearing Duckett’s Georgetown jacket that night.
But police, including homicide detective Donald Kincaid, focused on Chestnut and Watkins, then 16, and Stewart, then 17, the Conviction Integrity Unit concluded. The three had skipped high school that morning and were goofing around in the hallways and classrooms of Harlem Park, visiting siblings and chatting with former teachers. Teachers and students saw them — and the teens admitted they’d been there. A Georgetown University jacket was later found in Chestnut’s bedroom.
The teens were kicked out around 12:45 p.m. by a security guard, who testified at trial that he lectured the boys about staying in school, watched them walk up the street away from the school and then locked the school doors well before the 1:15 p.m. shooting of Duckett. Prosecutors said the trio must have sneaked back in.
Defense attorneys pressed for evidence that cast doubt on their clients’ guilt. In 1984, then-Assistant State’s Attorney Jonathan Shoup told the court the state had no such reports, despite the fact there were police documents showing that the trial witnesses had twice failed to identify the three defendants in photo lineups as well as statements implicating Willis. A judge sealed the reports. Then, when Chestnut made a public records request to the Maryland attorney general last year, the office turned them over.
“It made me angry,” Chestnut said. “Just the fact that everything was concealed all those years. I knew that they didn’t want to reveal those things.”
Shoup died in 2016.
Willis, who had a number of arrests on drug and assault charges after the Duckett slaying, was shot to death in west Baltimore in 2002 at age 37.
In a press conference Monday with Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, Mosby said: “These three men were convicted, as children, because of police and prosecutorial misconduct. What the state, my office, did to them is wrong. There is no way we can ever repair the damage done to them. We can’t be scared of that and we must confront it.
“I want to thank these men from the bottom of my heart for persevering for decades to prove their innocence. They deserve so much more than an apology. We owe them real compensation — and I plan to fight for it.”
Daily Record legal affairs reporter Heather Cobun contributed to this story.