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Spending panel approves $2.9M each for 3 exonerees

ANNAPOLIS — Three men who were exonerated for the 1983 murder of a teenager in Baltimore will receive nearly $3 million each as compensation for their wrongful incarceration.

The payments to Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart, approved by the Board of Public Works, come as the legislature works to create a formula to compensate people who are wrongfully convicted.

“All of them experienced unimaginable pain while they were incarcerated,” Gov. Larry Hogan said. “There is no question that they deserve to be justly compensated, as they were, to rebuild their lives.”

Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were teenagers when they were convicted in 1984 of murdering 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School.

Chestnut wrote to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to ask for a review of the men’s cases. An investigation by Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit resulted in the exoneration of all three men in November.

Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart each spent 36 years in prison.

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a member of the Board of Public Works, said the trio deserved an apology from the state.

“It wasn’t just a mistake,” Kopp said. “Someone else did the deed and it was known.”

Police reports from the time of the 1983 investigation reveal that several witnesses identified another man as the shooter.

“I just thank God it was recognized and thank God they maintained their faith in justice,” Kopp said of the three exonerated men. “In the end, justice prevailed. They say the mills of justice grind slowly, but this is extraordinarily slowly.”

Comptroller Peter Franchot described the men as “victims of a broken justice system.”

“These are years that can’t be regained where they were incarcerated, separated from their families, friends and loved one — years that they could have been pursuing their hopes and dreams and living their lives freely,” Franchot said of the more than three decades the men spent in prison.

The settlement approved Wednesday gives each man more than $2.9 million — roughly $81,868 per year for each year they spent behind bars.

Franchot said the amount was based on the median annual income in the state, but he added that “no dollar amount can restore what was stolen from them.”

The award was the second since October, when the board voted to approve more than $9 million for five wrongly incarcerated men — Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams — who spent a combined 120 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

The award last fall was based on a state annual median income of $78,916 for each year the men were incarcerated.

Action on the men’s petitions for compensation was delayed, as Hogan said the board lacked the ability to determine how to compensate the exonerated men. The men were compensated, but Hogan called on lawmakers to approve legislation that would set standards for future cases.

Legislation on the issue failed last year but is back before the House and Senate.

“We are looking forward to continuing to work with legislative leaders over the final weeks of this legislative session on a long-term, bipartisan solution to this issue,” Hogan said. “So we’re going to deal with these three cases today, but I still want to encourage our colleagues in the legislature on both sides of the aisle to work toward a long-term solution with us.”