“You take three kids’ lives and tear them apart,” Watkins said Thursday, “nobody wants to talk about it.” He was jailed at 16, and released at 52. “I’m struggling to get my life back on board.”
On Thursday, the three men sued the Baltimore Police Department and the three lead detectives on their case, arguing that the police had a lengthy pattern of misconduct that has cost the state of Maryland millions of dollars in wrongful-conviction settlements. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the 108 combined years that Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart served make their case the longest stretch of wrongful incarceration for one case in recorded American history.
“Once you read it,” Stewart said of the lawsuit, “it’s like it plays itself out again in your life. It just lets you know that a life that people should value, it’s not valued, particularly from a young man’s perspective. They knew we didn’t do it.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Baltimore, names former homicide detectives Donald Kincaid, John Barrick and Bryn Joyce as the defendants, in addition to the Baltimore Police Department. The state has already paid the men settlements of $2.9 million. But that did not insulate the police from being sued for their role in what the suit claims were coerced statements by teenage witnesses who falsely accused Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, and whose testimony convicted the defendants in the absence of any physical evidence. Arrested as juveniles and tried as adults, all three were sentenced to life in prison.
Kincaid told The Washington Post in November that he did not coerce the witnesses or frame the defendants. “What would I get out of that?” he said. “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?”
Kincaid, Barrick and Joyce are all retired, and a fourth detective not named in the suit has died. Kincaid and Barrick could not be reached to comment Thursday. Joyce said he had not seen or been told about the suit, and was “flabbergasted” to learn that the three defendants had been exonerated.
“Our objective when I was in the homicide unit,” he said Thursday, “was to find the truth, no matter where it led us.” He said that he did not have specific recollections of the Harlem Park case and that Kincaid was “an excellent detective,” but that he hadn’t spoken to him in decades. Joyce said he retired in 1984, before many of the other wrongful convictions noted in the lawsuit happened.
Baltimore police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said the department has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were arrested at their homes early on Thanksgiving morning in 1983, and accused of the robbery and murder of DeWitt Duckett, a 14-year-old student at Harlem Park Junior High School. The death, six days earlier, was the first homicide in a Baltimore school and created great pressure on police to solve the case, in which an armed assailant took a Georgetown Starter jacket while shooting DeWitt in a hallway of the school, in front of at least two other students.
Convicted at trial and sent to adult prison at 17, the three defendants, now dubbed the “Harlem Park Three,” spent their first 12 years in the same institution before being split up, and they said they remain in daily contact today. They refused to admit involvement in the killing and so were denied parole. Stewart said he gave up hope of ever being released.
But Chestnut kept pushing, and a request through the Freedom of Information Act eventually unearthed police reports showing that detectives had reports indicating that another teenager, who had been seen running from the school while discarding a gun, had admitted his involvement to others, and was seen wearing DeWitt’s Georgetown jacket.
Although witnesses said one person had killed DeWitt, the Baltimore police somehow determined that three people were involved. Witnesses were shown photo lineups of Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart and repeatedly were unable to identify them, Chestnut discovered in the police file. Baltimore Assistant State’s Attorney Jonathan Shoup told the judge at trial that there were no such reports, and the judge sealed the file until Chestnut obtained it in 2018.
Chestnut sent a handwritten letter to Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which began reinvestigating the case, and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project lined up lawyers for the men. The two sides filed a joint motion to vacate the men’s convictions, which was granted, and then prosecutors dismissed the case. The men walked out of the courthouse three days before Thanksgiving, exactly 36 years and one day after they were arrested.
The lawsuit has new details about how police allegedly coerced and intimidated teenage witnesses into accusing Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, who had been in the junior high school earlier in the day while skipping their own high school classes with two other friends. The five teenagers had visited their former teachers and then been escorted off school property about 30 minutes before the shooting, the security guard who showed them out testified in 1984.
DeWitt had been walking with three friends in Harlem Park when he was shot. The friends told police that one person had approached DeWitt and demanded his jacket. The lawsuit alleges that in the days after the killing, Kincaid, Joyce and Barrick questioned the friends, ages 14, 15, and 16, at least three times each, showing them multiple photo arrays that included Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins, but the witnesses didn’t pick out any of the three.
The three maintained their innocence from the start, and testified in their own defense at trial. The lawsuit alleges that when Kincaid questioned Watkins in 1983, the detective told him, “You have two things against you — you’re black and I have a badge.”
Kincaid and Joyce, the lawsuit claims, “coerced, suggested and/or fabricated a false statement and identification” from each of the three teenagers who had been with DeWitt. The lawsuit alleges that the detectives “physically threatened” one of the teenage witnesses and did not disclose the witnesses’ initial inability to identify Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins. None of the witnesses’ statements were recorded.
Kincaid told The Post in November that he had not coerced or falsified any statements. “When I was in the crime scene up at the school,” he 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 retired in 1990.
A 13-year-old girl, who had not been in the hallway and hadn’t seen the shooting, signed a false statement written by Kincaid and Barrick “implicating the innocent teens,” the lawsuit states. Investigators with Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit interviewed the witnesses and found that two of them told Kincaid and others “many times” that the 13-year-old “had not witnessed the murder,” but the detectives ignored them, according to the suit.
Baltimore prosecutors did not know that homicide detectives had fabricated the 13-year-old’s statement, the lawsuit states, that a total of four teenagers had been coerced into implicating the three suspects, and did not know that Kincaid, Joyce and Barrick had not investigated the suspect who was seen wearing DeWitt’s jacket and discarding a gun near the school. That suspect was never charged, and was shot to death in West Baltimore in 2002.
The lawsuit lists 13 wrongful-conviction cases attributed to the Baltimore police since 1968. In many of the cases, convictions were reversed when it was found that Baltimore police had coerced testimony or withheld information from defendants. The civil rights claims state that Baltimore police did not take corrective action in the face of a “pattern and practice of misconduct in murder investigations,” even as the homicide unit was being featured in the book and television show “Homicide.”
Since Mosby took office in 2015, her Conviction Integrity Unit has reversed wrongful convictions nine times. The prosecutor has been pressing for laws protecting juvenile witnesses. In the Harlem Park Three case, the teenage witnesses were taken from school, coached in numerous meetings and interrogated without parents present, the lawsuit states.
All three defendants said they have had difficulty adjusting to their new lives “I’m still trying to piece everything together in my life,” Chestnut said. He is the only one of the three who has not yet found a job. “I’m a baby,” Chestnut said. “Everything is new to me.”
Stewart said, “We didn’t receive any kind of counseling or transition help to ease us back into society." He has moved to South Carolina, where his mother now lives, but says he has had trouble reconnecting with his family. “My faith is my salvation.”
All three said the lawsuit yanks them back, mentally, to the terror of being pulled from their homes after midnight in November 1983, and being photographed as they walked out of a Baltimore courthouse. “It brings back the pain and suffering you’ve gone through,” Watkins said. “But I know it’s something that needs to be done. The state needs to be exposed. Every day of my life, because of this, is a struggle.”