Learning from an injustice that cost 3 men 36 years of life

This editorial appeared in the Washington Post.

For the first time in 36 years, Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart celebrated Thanksgiving with their families at their homes in Baltimore. Thanks should be given that these three men, now in their 50s, finally received justice and were freed from prison after being locked up as teenagers for a murder they had no part in. But the story of what happened nearly four decades ago to three young black men also evokes emotions other than gratitude. There is sadness and horror and rage and, we hope, resolve that what happened to these men never happens to other innocent people.

"Today isn't a victory. Today it's a tragedy that these men had 36 years of their lives stolen," said Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby Monday after a judge accepted her office's request to exonerate the men. They had been convicted of the Nov. 18, 1983, murder of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett, who was shot and killed in Harlem Park Junior High School by someone who wanted his jacket. Their conviction was based on the testimony of four teenage witnesses who have recanted, saying police and prosecutors pressured them to change their initial, truthful stories — that another person shot Duckett — and instead identify the three 16-year-olds.

That and other misconduct by authorities who ignored and concealed evidence pointing to the real killer (who is now deceased) were uncovered by the state's attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit. Chestnut, who like the other defendants never wavered in proclaiming his innocence, found information about discrepancies through a public information request to the Maryland attorney general. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which has helped exonerate six other wrongly convicted Baltimore men in the past three years, joined the effort. On Monday, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters declared the men innocent.

"On behalf of the criminal-justice system, and I'm sure this means very little to you, I'm going to apologize," the judge told the men. Surrounded by family and friends, Stewart spoke about how he sat on his jail cell bunk and cried when he got the news; Watkins talked about how the three "went through hell." Chestnut said he is looking forward to living the rest of his life taking care of his family and praising God.

The men are owed far more than an apology, but no amount of money will ever be able to compensate them for all they have lost.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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