Baltimore is set to pay $48 million to three men wrongfully convicted of a 1983 murder who went on to allege in a lawsuit that Baltimore Police detectives coerced false witness statements to implicate them in the crime.
The so-called “Harlem Park Three” – Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart Jr. and Ransom Watkins – were freed in 2019 by the state’s attorney’s office after a judge exonerated them of the 1983 killing of a junior high school student over a Georgetown University basketball jacket.
At that point, the men had each spent 36 years in prison.
Their combined 108 years behind bars set a record for the longest wrongful incarceration for a single crime in U.S. history, their attorneys said at the time.
They vowed to hold the city accountable.
In 2020, the men were awarded $8.7 million – $2.9 million each – by the Maryland Board of Public Works. But they also sued Baltimore Police, alleging constitutional violations by former detectives Donald Kincaid, John Barrick and Bryn Joyce.
Explaining the rationale behind the proposed settlement, which will come before the Board of Estimates next week, the city Law Department noted that “at least two of the eyewitnesses recanted their testimony” and pointed to the passage of time.
“Unfortunately, the age of the underlying convictions in this case has led to lapses in memory, unavailable witnesses and incomplete or missing records, thus making it nearly impossible to corroborate or refute plaintiffs’ allegations or the state’s attorney’s findings in its reinvestigation,” the department’s spending board request says.
Hiding Exculpatory Evidence
Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins were 16-year-olds at the time of their arrest for the killing of 14-year-old Dewitt Duckett.
The freshman was shot in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School.
City prosecutors under then-State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, as well as two nonprofit groups, recently re-examined the case and concluded that Kincaid had pressured the students who identified Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins as the killers.
They presented evidence that four witnesses had recanted and that police withheld exculpatory evidence, including interviews with other students who identified the killer as another man, who died in 2002.
The payment will be seven times more than the $6.4 million paid to settle the Freddie Gray case.
On November 25, 2019, Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters formally wiped out their convictions.
“On behalf of the criminal justice system,” Peters said at the time, “and I’m sure this means very little to you gentlemen, I’m going to apologize.”
The three men’s lawsuit alleged not only that police coerced testimony and concealed evidence but that their actions were part of a broader pattern within the BPD.
“A kid around wolves”
The staggering size of the settlement the city will pay – more than seven times the $6.4 million used to settle Freddie Gray’s police in-custody death – is the latest twist in a four decade-long saga that was high-profile from the beginning. The crime set off a debate about youth crime and school safety.
Their 36-page lawsuit, meanwhile, is a saga of police misconduct and three innocent teens’ nightmare.
It starts off with this excerpt from “Juvenile Lifer,” written by Alfred Chestnut and published in 2019 in the Jessup Correctional Institute Newspaper:
“We are innocent and have been fighting to prove that. The system has failed us because we put our faith in [it] not knowing what [it was] doing to us from the beginning. The system did not care about putting three kids in a[n] adult prison, the Maryland Penitentiary, the most dangerous prison in Maryland.
I was 16 years old, afraid, sent from D.O.C. to the Pen by myself . . . My first day, it was in your face violence, where I saw two men fighting with knives stabbing each other ‘blow for blow’ . . . I was a kid around wolves and dragons.”