It was a day they thought would never come.
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart walked out of a Maryland courtroom as free men Monday after a judge vacated their convictions, clearing them in the 1983 killing of a Baltimore teen.
The trio, who were just teens themselves when they were sentenced to life in prison, had spent 36 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.
“On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you gentlemen, I’m going to apologize,” Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters told the men, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were arrested Thanksgiving Day 1983 for the murder of DeWitt Duckett. According to court documents, Duckett, 14, was in the hall, heading to class when he was accosted by the shooter over his Georgetown jacket. A struggle ensued and Duckett was shot in the neck.
The three then-teenagers, who had skipped high school that day to visit their siblings and former teachers at their old junior high school, were ejected from Harlem Park Junior High School before the time of the deadly shooting, but it was that attention, however, that prompted investigators to turn their attention to the three young men. Moreover, a similar Georgetown jacket was found in Chestnut’s closet by police, and students at school picked the defendants out of a photo lineup, court documents show.
The men maintained their innocence, and their case got a second look after Chestnut penned a letter to the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) at the office of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. In his letter, Chestnut also included exculpatory evidence he uncovered last year, The Washington Post reported.
Now, prosecutors say police reports showed several witnesses identified a man, who was 18 at the time of the killing, as the shooter. One student said he saw him flee the scene and toss the weapon as police arrived to Harlem Park Junior High School.
The man suspected of committing the murder was shot to death in 2002.
Also, while some witnesses ID’d Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart as the killers, there were several others who picked another student from the photo array. The defense wasn’t aware of it at the time, however.
As part of the case review, investigators re-interviewed witnesses and revisited evidence supposedly linking the trio to Duckett’s slaying. What they found was troubling.
“Present day, all four of those witnesses have recanted,” Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb told the judge, according to The Baltimore Sun. “There is evidence of coerced pretrial preparation. … One former student told the state they were told quote ‘Get with the program,’”
Court docs show prosecutors continued to focus on the teens as suspects, even after Chestnut’s mother presented a receipt for the jacket, along with an authentication letter from the store at trial. A jury took just three hours to deliberate before convicting all three in the murder.
On Monday, a judge dropped all the charges, finally setting them free.
Stewart said he was speechless over it all.
“I really don’t have the words to say, but I just thank God,” he said, according to WBAL-TV. “It’s surreal (to be released).”
Chestnut said he’s most looking forward to spending time and being there for his family, adding, “I’ve been always dreaming of this, for this day.”
Watkins was just as overjoyed, but said he knows there’s a long road ahead.
“You see us out here, we’re smiling. We’re happy that we’re free, but we’ve got a lot to fix,” he told the crowd, placing a hand on his heart. “This should have never happened.”
The men’s exonerations were made possible by the CIU, which is works in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project Clinic, NPR reported.
In a statement, Mosby apologized for the state’s role in Chestnut, Watkins and Stewarts’ incarcerations and decried the system she said “failed them.”
“These three men were convicted, as children, because of police and prosecutorial misconduct,” she said. “What the state, my office, did to them is wrong. There is no way we can ever repair the damage done to them. I want to thank these men from the bottom of my heart for persevering for decades to prove their innocence. They deserve so much more than an apology.”
The city states’s attorney has since announced calls for a transitional assistance program and efforts to provide compensation for exonerees.