THREE BALTIMORE MEN TO BE FREED AFTER SPENDING A COMBINED
108 YEARS IN PRISON FOR A MURDER THEY DID NOT COMMIT
Today, the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office announced that it would agree to vacate the convictions and dismiss all charges against Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) and Nieto Law Office client Ransom Watkins; Maryland Office of the Public Defender and University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic (UBIPC) client Alfred Chestnut; and Nathans Biddle client Andrew Stewart. The three men have each spent the past 36 years in prison for a murder they did not commit.
The three men, then teenagers, were convicted of the November 18, 1983, murder of fellow teenager DeWitt Duckett, who was shot and killed in Harlem Park Junior High School (HPJHS) by someone who wanted to steal his Georgetown jacket. They were convicted based on the testimony of four teenage witnesses who have now recanted, saying they were pressured by police to change their initial, truthful stories — that one person committed the crime — and instead identify the three boys.
“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,” said Shawn Armbrust, MAIP’s Executive Director. “Like the Exonerated Five and 8th & H cases, this case should be a lesson to everyone that the search for quick answers can lead to tragic results.”
Three of the four teenage witnesses told police shortly after the crime that one person had committed the crime, but police focus quickly shifted to Watkins, Chestnut, and Stewart when a teacher said the three boys — who were no longer students at HPJHS — had been in the building shortly before the crime. That focus intensified when they saw Chestnut wearing a Georgetown jacket, even though his mother had a receipt for the jacket.
The initial three witnesses failed to identify the boys from a photo array, and at least one of them identified someone else. A few days later, however, a school security guard told them that a 14-year-old girl could identify the three. Police then brought the three other witnesses to the police station and engaged in questioning that they admitted was “harsh.” All three identified Watkins, Chestnut, and Stewart as jointly committing the crime.
At the May 1984 trial, the jury deliberated for only three hours before convicting all three boys, who had claimed innocence from the beginning. At sentencing, the prosecutor criticized them for failing to show “the first sign of remorse or even responsibility for their actions.” Nonetheless, Watkins told the court that “by putting us behind bars, that still isn’t getting this crime off the street.” Stewart said, “I’m saying we know we didn’t do it, and a lot of other people know we didn’t do it.”
“For 36 years, the courts, the City of Baltimore, and the country have heard and ignored the declarations of innocence from Mr. Watkins, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Chestnut,” said Frances Walters, MAIP’s Legal Director and lead counsel for Mr. Watkins. “Thank you to the State’s Attorney and the Conviction Integrity Unit for listening and being willing to do what no one else has for these men.”
Ransom, Alfred, and Andrew are the fifth, sixth, and seventh people exonerated through the MAIP-UBIPC-SAO partnership in the past 18 months, following brothers JR McPherson and Eric Simmons in May of this year, Clarence Shipley in December 2018, and Jerome Johnson in July 2018. Last year, MAIP received a Department of Justice grant that formalized and funded this unique partnership between two innocence organizations and the only conviction integrity unit in Maryland. That grant funds CIU investigator Brian Ellis and MAIP/UBIPC Paralegal/Investigator Emily Heun Pate, both of whom were critical to achieving today’s result along with CIU head Lauren Lipscomb.
Founded in 2000, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project corrects and prevents the conviction of innocent people in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. We are one of the most successful of the 54 innocence organizations in the country. We have helped to secure the release and/or exoneration of 36 innocent men who spent a total of 708 years in prison for crimes they did not do. We have also helped pass 14 laws that help improve the criminal justice system.
The University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic is an affiliate of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and is also sponsored by the University of Baltimore and the Office of the Public Defender.
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Read about this case in The Washington Post.
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