On Monday, after spending 36 years behind bars, childhood friends Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart were declared innocent of murder by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge, Charles J. Peters. The three men exited the courthouse after Peters issued a solemn apology on behalf of the city, “On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologize.” All three men were greeted by a flurry of anxious loved ones who have waited years for justice to prevail.
Their devastating experience began in November of 1983 when 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett was brutally murdered for his Georgetown University jacket in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School. Investigators at the time believed that his killing was the by-product of a dangerous wave in the ’80s known “clothing murders,” where many teens and young adults were gunned down over sneakers or other popular and often costly sports apparel. The brazen killing shook the city, as it was the first that took place inside of a Baltimore city school. Authorities claimed at the time that the jacket taken from the victim was located in Alfred Chestnut’s closet. However, that same year, his mother, Sarah Chestnut, had purchased her son a Georgetown University jacket that was identical to the one that Duckett was allegedly killed over. After nearly four decades, investigators have finally acknowledged that the jacket located in Chestnut’s closet did, in fact, come from his mother, a claim that the family has maintained for years.
On Thanksgiving Day of that same year, police charged Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart Jr., all 16 at the time, with Duckett’s murder. Based on testimony from four Harlem Park students, who we now know were coached and coerced by prosecutors on the case, a judge sentenced all three teens to life in prison. “Present-day, all four of those witnesses have recanted,” Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb told the judge on Monday.
Even when the three friends were separated after twelve years of incarceration together, Chestnut, now 52, maintained the innocence of himself and two friends over the years. This year, his diligence finally paid off. In May, he sent a letter to the city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s office. There, prosecutors gave the case a second look. The case was then handed over to the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office’s Conviction Integrity Unit. They were able to discover an enormous amount of evidence that had been ignored, as well as the encouragement of false witness testimony. In fact, evidence pointed to another suspect altogether. Statements taken immediately following the murder revealed that at least three witnesses identified 18-year-old Michael Willis as the shooter. One student identified him immediately, while another witnessed Willis fleeing the scene and discarding of a handgun as police were responding to the shooting. One witness even reported hearing Willis confess to the shooting. Unfortunately, he was murdered in 2002.
“This is overwhelming,” said Chestnut, his voice trembling as he addressed the crowd of media outlets, spectators, lawyers, and loved ones. “I always dreamed of this. My mom, this is what she’s been holding on to forever. To see her son come home.”