3 Baltimore Men Exonerated After 36 Years Behind Bars For Wrongful Murder Conviction

The judge apologized “on behalf of the criminal justice system” for the 1983 conviction.

Almost 36 years to the exact day three Baltimore teens were arrested in 1983 and convicted of murder, they are now free. 

On Monday (Nov. 25), a Baltimore judge apologized to the men -- Alfred Chestnut, now 52, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart -- “on behalf of the criminal justice system,” the Washington Post reports. 

“I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologize,” Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters said, declaring them innocent. “We’re adjourned.” 

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The men were wrongfully convicted of murdering 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett, who was shot and killed for his Georgetown University Jacket at Harlem Park Junior High School in November 1983, the Washington Post reports. 

Despite numerous witnesses telling Baltimore investigators that Michael Willis, then 18, was the shooter, Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were arrested on the morning of Thanksgiving 1983, and later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, the Washington Post reports. 

Their exoneration was due to the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which uncovered several flaws in the case that prosecutors now say encouraged false witness testimony and ignored evidence pointing to Willis as the killer, the Washington Post reports. 

According to what prosecutors are now saying, in 1983 one student identified Willis immediately, one saw him run and discard a handgun as police pulled up to the junior high school, one heard him confess to the shooting, and one saw him wearing a Georgetown jacket that night, the Washington Post reports. 

While the three men, then boys, were at the junior high school that day after skipping their school to visit siblings and former teachers, they were kicked out by a security guard at 12:45 p.m. before Duckett was shot and killed at 1:15 pm. They never denied being at the school that day. They also had virtually no experience with the law and teachers described them “as silly and immature, not threatening,” according to Lauren Lipscomb, the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, the Washington Post reports.  

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Upon searching the boys’ homes on the morning of their arrests, a Georgetown University jacket was found in Chestnut’s bedroom closet, but his mother produced the receipt for the purchase of the jacket, which was never presented by the prosecution in court. Although no blood or physical evidence tied the coat to Duckett or the shooting, prosecutors told the jury the victim’s jacket was in the defendant’s closet, the Washington Post reports.

During more than three decades behind bars, Chestnut never gave up hope that he and his childhood friends would have their convictions overturned and the truth would come to light, according to the Washington Post

In May, Chestnut sent a handwritten letter to city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s office, after he saw her on television discussing the work of the Conviction Integrity Unit. In his letter, he included new evidence he uncovered in 2018 that incriminated Willis, the man authorities now say was the actual shooter. That evidence prompted Baltimore prosecutors to quickly review the case and re-interview witnesses, eventually leading to the men’s exonerations, the Washington Post reports. 

“I’m sorry. The system failed them. They should have never had to see the inside of a jail cell,” Mosby said Monday (Nov. 25), recalling what she told all three men when she visited each one in prison on Friday (Nov. 22), the Washington Post reports. “We will do everything in our power not only to release them, but to support them as they re-acclimate into society.” 

The lead detective on the case in 1983 was reportedly stunned to learn that the three men were set free, the Washington Post reports.

“What would I get out of that?” Donald Kincaid said, denying any improprieties with the Baltimore police investigation, the Washington Post reports. “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?”

Monday’s (Nov. 25) court appearance was less than half an hour long before all three men were set free and welcomed by family and loved ones. Lipscomb and the defense attorneys asked the judge to grant a writ of actual innocence, which he granted, ordering a new trial, according to the Washington Post

“I feel like all these years I’ve been saying the same thing,” Chestnut said, the Washington Post reports. “Finally, somebody heard my cry. I give thanks to God and Marilyn Mosby. She’s been doing a lot of work for guys in my situation.”

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