US Freed
Andrew Stewart, from left, Alfred Chestnut, and Ransom Watkins speak in Baltimore, Maryland on November 25, 2019. The three men who had been incarcerated for 36 years in Maryland were exonerated in the slaying of a Baltimore teenager after a review of their case. Image Credit: AP

In the hallway of his Baltimore middle school one afternoon in November 1983, DeWitt Duckett, 14, was shot and killed for his Georgetown University jacket. The attack was shocking - the first killing in a Baltimore city school. And the pressure to solve the case was intense.

Early on Thanksgiving Day that year, police arrested three teenagers who were eventually convicted of murder.

On Monday, 36 years after the trio began serving life sentences, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters declared them innocent.

“On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologise,” Peters told them. “We’re adjourned.”

The packed courtroom erupted in applause, and family members began crying and hugging.

The extraordinary exonerations were set in motion through the perseverance of one of the defendants, Alfred Chestnut, now 52, who never stopped pushing for a review of the case. This spring his claim was picked up by the Baltimore state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which uncovered a flawed case that prosecutors now say encouraged false witness testimony and ignored evidence of another assailant.

On Monday at 5.15pm, Chestnut and his childhood friends Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart walked out of the courthouse as free men, into the arms of weeping mothers and sisters and fiancees who doubted they would see this day.

“This is overwhelming,” said Chestnut, surrounded by cameras, lawyers and family. “I always dreamed of this. My mom, this is what she’s been holding on to forever. To see her son come home.”

As the decades passed, two of the men gave up hope of ever seeing the outside world again. But Chestnut kept pushing. In May, he sent a handwritten letter to city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s office, after seeing her on television discussing the unit dedicated to uncovering wrongful convictions. Chestnut included new evidence he’d uncovered last year that incriminated the man authorities now say was the actual shooter. The Baltimore prosecutors dug in quickly, reviewed the case and re-interviewed witnesses.

The release of Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart are the seventh, eighth and ninth exonerations enabled by Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit since she took office in 2015. Mosby visited each man in prison on Friday to give them the news she was asking for their freedom, a moment she called “surreal, incredibly powerful.” She said she told the men: “I’m sorry. The system failed them. They should have never had to see the inside of a jail cell. We will do everything in our power not only to release them, but to support them as they re-acclimate into society.”

Donald Kincaid, the lead detective on the case, was stunned to learn that the three men were being exonerated, and denied any improprieties with the Baltimore police investigation. “What would I get out of that?” Kincaid asked Monday. “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?”

Police reports produced soon after the killing revealed that numerous witnesses had 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 a Georgetown jacket that night.

But police, including Kincaid, focused on Chestnut and Watkins and Stewart, all 16, 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.

“When I was in the crime scene up at the school,” Kincaid said, “three young girls approached me and told me who did it. I didn’t coerce them for nothing. They passed the information to me, that’s what opened up the case.”

He did not remember Willis as a suspect and denied withholding any information. He said he had not spoken to the Conviction Integrity Unit, and said that Mosby was “trying to make every one of us [officers] look like liars and cheats. That’s crazy.”

The teens were kicked out around 12.45pm by a security guard who testified at trial 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 1.15pm shooting of Duckett. Prosecutors at the time 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.”

Mosby said the case raised a number of problems she intends to address. The teen witnesses were repeatedly questioned without their parents present, she said, and they felt pressured to falsely identify Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart. Mosby is seeking laws to prohibit such questioning by police without a parent, guardian or lawyer.

Maryland also has no working system to compensate exonerees even though such payments are allowed by state law; the government has lagged behind other states in making such payments for years. After months of pressure from advocates and dozens of lawmakers, Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, and the Maryland Board of Public Works recently initiated a process to pay $9 million (Dh33.05 million) to five exonerees who collectively served more than 120 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Mosby said she will lobby for a formalised compensation process for all exonerees. The three men in this case declined to comment on whether they would seek money for their wrongful convictions.

And Mosby said there is no support system for those who walk out of prison after years or decades inside. She has created a programme called Resurrection After Exoneration to connect exonerees with mental and physical health services, education, housing and job opportunities. “I think it’s important and incumbent on us,” Mosby said, “as the system that has wronged them, to be able to take accountability. We’re excited to show that we’re going to support them.”