Baltimore to Pay $48 Million to 3 Men Wrongly Convicted of Murder as Teens

Baltimore will pay $48 million to settle a federal lawsuit brought by three men who were arrested as teenagers and spent 36 years in prison for a murder they did not commit, the city’s Board of Estimates decided on Wednesday. The payout is the largest amount awarded in Maryland in such a case.

The men, Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart, now in their 50s, were arrested on Thanksgiving Day in 1983 in the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy. The authorities said the three had killed him because they wanted his jacket. Based on testimony from eyewitnesses and circumstantial evidence, the three youths were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The three men sat behind bars for years with no chance at freedom until 2018, when Mr. Chestnut submitted a public records request and discovered evidence that revealed that several witnesses had identified someone else as the gunman. The person identified as the gunman died in 2002.

Their case was reinvestigated by the state’s attorney, and they walked out of prison in November 2019 after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge accepted the state’s attorney’s request to exonerate the three men. Statements from witnesses were later recanted, after the state’s investigation found that some witnesses had been pressured by the police.

Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart received $2.9 million from the state of Maryland in 2020 through a compensation plan created for those who have been exonerated. Later that year, the three men filed a federal lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department and the detectives involved in their arrest.

When the suit was filed, Andrew Freeman, a lawyer for the three men, said that “the police detectives cut corners and threatened witnesses.”

The case was ultimately settled for $48 million, of which the three men will receive $14.9 million each. Brown, Goldstein & Levy, the law firm that represented the men, will receive about $3 million in legal fees, according to the city’s Board of Estimates.

The settlement amount is the highest ever awarded in Maryland, according to Jeffrey Gutman, director of the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at George Washington University Law School, who tracks settlements in wrongful conviction cases.

Brown, Goldstein & Levy did not immediately respond on Thursday to requests for comment from Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins, Mr. Stewart and their lawyers.

Justin Conroy, chief legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, said that both parties had been negotiating a settlement since October 2022. The $48 million, “while high,” Mr. Conroy said, brings resolution to the three men.

“These are men who went to jail as teens,” Mr. Conroy said at the Board of Estimates meeting, at which all five members approved the settlement.

Mayor Brandon Scott of Baltimore said in a statement read on his behalf at the meeting that settlements like Wednesday’s “speak to gross injustices” against the residents of Baltimore.

“Our city is in a position where in 2023 we are literally paying for the misconduct of B.P.D. officers decades in the past,” Mr. Scott said, referring to the city’s Police Department. “This is just part of the price our city must pay to right the wrongs of this terrible history.”

The Baltimore Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the case on Thursday. It was unclear whether the case had directly led to any changes within the department. The three men were minors when they were questioned without their parents or a lawyer present.

According to the federal lawsuit, police officers stormed into the bedrooms of Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart and arrested them in the middle of the night on Nov. 19, 1983, in the murder of DeWitt Duckett, a ninth grader attending Harlem Park Junior High School, the previous day.

The Baltimore Police Department has faced scrutiny from the Justice Department since the federal agency released a report in 2016 that showed that the force’s officers disproportionately stopped Black residents.

During the meeting on Wednesday, Nick Mosby, the City Council president, raised concerns that the city would still pay out pensions for the officers involved in the case, all of whom are now retired.

“It’s coming out of us repaving roads, rebuilding rec centers,” Mr. Mosby said of the settlement. “The individual responsible should take some ownership in that, and us paying out their pension for the remainder is problematic.”

The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which helped represent the three men when the case was revisited, said on Facebook that the settlement “underscores how wrongful convictions negatively impact both individuals and communities.”

The organization continued: “No amount of money can make up for the 36 years that each man lost to prison. Baltimore taxpayers — who were not responsible for the wrongful convictions — will shoulder the cost of the settlement.”

Mr. Mosby also said during the meeting that it was important for the city to have services available to those who have been exonerated as they “come back into society.”

“Imagine to have your life ripped up from under you at age 16 for 36 years,” Mr. Mosby said. “We’ve literally destroyed these individuals’ lives.”

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