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They’ve Spent 36 Years Behind Bars for Murder. Someone Else Did It, Prosecutors Now Say

Three men were imprisoned as teenagers for the shooting of a middle school student over his jacket. That was 1983. On Monday, three men — now graying and in their 50s — walked out of prison, freed after spending all of their adult lives behind bars.

New York Times

Updated:November 26, 2019, 10:19 AM IST
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They’ve Spent 36 Years Behind Bars for Murder. Someone Else Did It, Prosecutors Now Say
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart walked out of jail on Monday. (Photo: Facebook)

The three teenagers were arrested on Thanksgiving Day 1983, and deemed the perpetrators of a brazen crime: They had shot and killed a 14-year-old boy as he walked down the hallway of his junior high school to lunch. They wanted the boy’s jacket, a popular Georgetown Starter style, the authorities said, and that motive — chilling and petty — drew outrage in Baltimore, where a jury soon convicted the teenagers of murder and sent them away for life.

Thirty-six years later, prosecutors announced that the convictions had been in error. Another teenager, the prosecutors now acknowledge, had been the real killer.

On Monday, three men — now graying and in their 50s — walked out of prison, freed after spending all of their adult lives behind bars. Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart appeared relieved but also perplexed as they emerged to tell a cluster of waiting news cameras about their years in prison, waging what often seemed like a hopeless fight to prove their innocence in the long-ago murder that they had always insisted they did not commit.

“I’ve been always dreaming of this,” said Chestnut, who was flanked by his mother and his fiancée. “All my friends in prison know that I’ve always been talking about this, dreaming about this all of the time. Even when I was a kid, you know? ‘Why is this happening to me?’”

As part of a series of recent examinations of old, questionable cases, a unit of the Baltimore prosecutor’s office found numerous errors in the investigation of the school shooting case. The new review concluded that a different student, now deceased, actually shot DeWitt Duckett, the junior high school student who was killed as he walked through Harlem Park Junior High School in Baltimore.

On Monday, Charles Peters, a Baltimore circuit court judge, accepted the state’s attorney’s request to exonerate the three men.

“My heart breaks for all three of these men, who must now reconcile that we live in a world that could take 36 years away from innocent men,” said Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney, who took over the prosecutor’s office in 2015, decades after the original trial. “Today isn’t a victory. Today it’s a tragedy that these men had 36 years of their lives stolen.”

Around the country, it has become increasingly common for prosecutors’ offices to assign investigators to re-examine convictions when evidence suggests an error might have been made.

From San Francisco to New York City, prosecutors now have teams of specialized investigators who sift through old evidence. Dozens of people have been freed every year because of findings of significant errors or evidence of police or prosecutorial misconduct. In Baltimore, Mosby’s office has cleared six other people of serious crimes since she took over.

The case of the three men released Monday stood out for the length of time the men had served, and the ages at which they had been sent to prison: They spent more than twice as long behind bars as they had growing up at home. They had all along insisted that they were innocent, and they told people that every chance they got. Even when they had chances of parole, years into their sentences, they had been unable to get it because they were unwilling to admit to the killing.

Mosby’s office said that the case against the three men was plagued with misconduct, including lies told by Jonathan Shoup, the state’s attorney at the time, that unfairly tipped the case in prosecutors’ favor. Shoup died in 2016.

The three men, who were then 16-year-old high school students, had ditched classes on Nov. 18, 1983, and had been at the junior high visiting friends until a security guard kicked them off campus.

About 30 minutes later, DeWitt, the junior high student, was walking to lunch with friends when someone demanded his jacket. After a struggle, he was shot with a .22-caliber handgun in the neck and collapsed. He died two hours later.

The school shooting drew close attention at the time, and police officers had been under immense pressure to swiftly solve the case, prosecutors said.

Among failings of the earlier investigation, Mosby’s office said, were denials by Shoup that his office possessed evidence that might cast doubt on the guilt of the three. Yet multiple witnesses at the time, Mosby’s office said, had actually identified a different person, Michael Willis, then 18, as the gunman.

Willis died in a shooting in 2002.

The new evidence was only revealed after Chestnut, now 52, submitted a public records request in 2018 and was eventually granted access to the court file that had been sealed by the trial judge.

The file also showed that four juvenile witnesses, who told the court that Chestnut and the others had been involved in the shooting, had actually failed multiple times to identify them in photo arrays before the trial. The witnesses, who were junior high school students, have since recanted, according to the court documents. They told investigators that they had been coached and pressured by police officers, who met with them a number of times without their parents present.

Timothy Williams c.2019 The New York Times Company

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