When I was 16, my mother and my next-door neighbor, who we called “Crow,” dropped me off for my first year of college.
I thought my mother would be happy that she would no longer have to scream “Did you put the seat down?” when she heard me in our only bathroom, but I was wrong. Before she exited the tiny dorm room, just as the first tear slid down her face, Crow reminded her that I would be back at home for Thanksgiving and asked what it would take for her not to cry for the entire ride home.
“Not even a million dollars,” she replied.
In 1983, When Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were 16 years old, Baltimore police officers arrested them for murder. Police officers ignored evidence that the actual killer was probably someone else. A Baltimore prosecutor lied about the evidence. A Baltimore jury convicted them. A Baltimore judge sentenced them to life in prison.
That was 36 years ago.
On Wednesday, Maryland’s Board of public works will almost certainly vote to compensate the three wrongfully convicted men $81,868 for each year of their incarceration, totaling $2,918,441 million each. The sum is to be paid out over seven years, according to the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting (pdf).
In November 1983, the three teenagers skipped school and visited their former junior high school on the same day 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett was shot and killed for a Georgetown University Starter jacket in the school hallway. Witnesses told the cops that they saw 18-year-old Michael Willis run away from the scene. They saw him discard a gun. They saw him wearing a Georgetown Starter jacket later that night.
The cops focused on Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart instead.
When the cops found a Starter jacket in Chestnut’s closet, they concocted a story that the three friends conspired to rob the 14-year-old for one jacket. Chestnut’s mother had a receipt for the jacket, but the cops would not relent. Witnesses failed to identify the teens in at least two photo lineups. Still, the cops pressed. On the morning of November 24, 1983, cops arrested the teenagers and took them into custody.
It was Thanksgiving Day.
The witnesses told investigators from the Conviction Integrity Unit that they were then regularly coached by [lead homicide detective Donald] 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.
Chestnut would not quit trying to exonerate his friends. In 2018, while digging through the case files, he essentially solved the murder from inside prison when he found the statements and evidence pointing to Willis through a public records request with the state’s attorney general. He contacted Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, who sent the information to her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit and the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project. The convictions were eventually set aside and the men received a Writ of Actual Innocence from a circuit court.
Thirty-six years later, they were home for Thanksgiving.
The expected compensation does not preclude the three men from suing the city or state in a civil case. Watkins said he fully expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. And even when the now-exonerated men were eligible for parole, they refused to accept responsibility for the murders, which is often a prerequisite for early release.
Not even for a million dollars.