UPDATE, Wednesday, 11 a.m.: The Board of Public Works approved the compensation for the three exonerees, at a total payout of $8.7 million. “This is something that is going to happen for generations,” Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) said of the board’s action. “This is a way that we correct quickly the egregious wrongs that have been committed and provide a small, inadequate healing for these situations.”
ORIGINAL STORY: Three Baltimore men who were teenagers when they were wrongly convicted of murder in 1984 are set to receive $2.9 million each from the state of Maryland under a proposed compensation plan that the Board of Public Works is scheduled to vote on Wednesday. The plan was revealed in agenda items posted by the board on Monday.
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were each 16 years old when Baltimore police focused on them as suspects in the November 1983 slaying of a 14-year-old boy inside Harlem Park Junior High School, ignoring numerous witnesses and leads that pointed to one other person. When defense attorneys asked for evidence about the other suspect, a Baltimore prosecutor lied to a judge and said there were no such reports. Chestnut eventually uncovered the reports in a public records request to the Maryland attorney general in 2018, supplied them to Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in 2019, and Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit worked to have the men freed by Thanksgiving — 36 years after they were first jailed.
Maryland has no requirement for compensating wrongly convicted defendants, instead allowing them to petition the Board of Public Works, which “may grant a reasonable amount” but for many years did not. But a bill is pending in the Maryland General Assembly that would require the board to pay wrongly convicted individuals. The bill calls for paying those wrongly convicted an amount for every year they were incarcerated, which is the U.S. Census Bureau’s average of Maryland’s median household income over the previous five years. For Maryland, that figure is now $81,868.
Multiplied by 36 years, that total is slightly more than $2.9 million, and the Board of Public Works used the same formula to arrive at the compensation for Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, all now 52 years old. The plan calls for them to be paid in full by July 2025.
The payment by the state of Maryland does not preclude lawsuits against the city of Baltimore and its police department. The men have hired lawyers to represent them in potential civil actions, which have not been filed yet. The lawyers declined to comment Monday, pending the vote on Wednesday.
Mosby, whose office reinvestigated the case and moved for the release of the men, said she was glad to hear of the payout. “I’m delighted that these three men have been granted the compensation they deserve,” Mosby said, “but it’s awful that they had to go through a legal process to obtain this small measure of justice. I’m asking the state legislature to pass the exoneree compensation bill so that this process becomes automatic and more humane.”
The three members of the Board of Public Works are Gov. Larry Hogan (R), state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) and state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). In October, they approved $9 million in payouts to five wrongly convicted men, including $3 million to one man who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Those were the first such payments by Maryland since 2004.
Thirty-five states have passed legislation authorizing exonerees to be compensated for their time served. The majority of them, including Florida, New Jersey and California, provide at least $50,000 for each year of incarceration, according to the Innocence Project.
Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were high school students who had decided to skip school one afternoon in November 1983, and instead returned to Harlem Park Junior High School, visiting siblings and former teachers. They had been booted out of the school by a security guard, who testified he then locked the school’s doors, by the time DeWitt Duckett, 14, was shot and killed in a school hallway. His Georgetown University Starter jacket was stolen in the incident, one of the first high-profile robberies associated with such jackets.
Witnesses told police that they had seen Michael Willis, 18, run and discard a handgun as police arrived, that he had confessed to the shooting, and that he was wearing a Georgetown jacket that night, Mosby’s office has said. But the prosecutors said Baltimore police, and lead homicide detective Donald Kincaid, instead focused on Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart because they had been seen in the school by multiple people and admitted to being there.
Though witnesses twice failed to identify Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart in photo lineups, Kincaid kept pressing the young witnesses to try again, the witnesses recently told investigators. Mosby said she was seeking a law that would prohibit such questioning of juveniles by police without a parent, guardian or lawyer. Eventually, Kincaid and the police developed a story that all three teens had assaulted Duckett and stolen his jacket. Police found a Georgetown jacket in Chestnut’s closet. Though his mother produced a receipt for the jacket, Baltimore police arrived at each teen’s home at 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day and took them into custody.
The witnesses told investigators from the Conviction Integrity Unit that they were then regularly coached by Kincaid and then-Assistant State’s Attorney Jonathan Shoup to coordinate their trial testimony. Their failure to identify the three defendants in photo lineups was concealed from the defense by Shoup, investigators found. A jury convicted the teens, and all three were sentenced to life in prison. They were each 17.
Shoup has since died. Kincaid told The Washington Post he did not frame the three teens or coerce the witnesses. “No. Come on, no. Hell no,” the retired detective said in November. “I didn’t know those boys. I didn’t know them from Adam. Why would I want to do something like that?” Willis was slain in West Baltimore in 2002, at age 37.
All three men said that when they became eligible for parole in recent years, they declined to accept responsibility for the slaying. “I can’t sit up there and tell somebody I killed somebody when I didn’t,” Watkins told The Post in November. Stewart said he had given up on ever being released from prison.
But Chestnut did not. He kept writing letters and filing motions, and finally, in 2018, he unearthed the reports that showed the evidence pointing to Willis, and the reports showing witnesses repeatedly failing to identify him, Watkins and Stewart. He sent a handwritten letter to Mosby, who passed it to Lauren Lipscomb, the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project was enlisted to coordinate representation for Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart. The three men became the seventh, eighth and ninth defendants released as a result of the prosecutor’s integrity unit.
Mosby visited each man in prison three days before their release. She said she apologized. “The system failed them. They should have never had to see the inside of a jail cell,” Mosby said. She said her office would work to help re-acclimate them into society.
And then Mosby waited outside the Baltimore city courthouse for several hours as the men were processed for release. They emerged into a swarm of weeping family members and bright photographers’ lights. As they stood before microphones, they seemed composed and ready.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” Chestnut said, smiling. “He has set the captives free.”
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.