(CNN) – Three Baltimore men who spent 36 years in prison were released Monday after authorities say they were falsely convicted of a 1983 murder.
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were granted a writ of innocence after being convicted of first-degree murder of a middle school student, DeWitt Duckett.
“That was hell,” Chestnut said of his experience in jail. “That was miserable.”
Chestnut and Watkins were 16 at the time of their arrest and Stewart was 17. The men are now in their early fifties preparing to enter adulthood on the outside for the first time. At least two have never driven a car before.
After Chestnut filed an information request this past spring, he discovered new evidence that was kept from his attorneys during trial. He reached out to Baltimore’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which was reviewing old convictions.
Chestnut has maintained his innocence since his arrest. The parole board denied his early release at least in part because he refused to admit responsibility for the shooting, the state’s attorney said.
He wasn’t just seeking justice for himself, he told CNN.
“Whatever I did for myself, I did for them too,” Chestnut said of Watkins and Stewart.
Duckett, 14, was shot and killed for his coveted Georgetown University basketball jacket in November 1983, police said.
The three teenagers had been skipping high school classes to visit former teachers at Harlem Park Junior High. Their teachers said they were being “silly,” but not threatening. School security escorted them off campus about half an hour before the murder occurred, according to a joint petition filed by the men and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
They were convicted based on witness testimony and what prosecutors at the time said was a crucial piece of evidence — a Georgetown jacket found in Chestnut’s bedroom.
However, Chestnut’s jacket had no blood or gunshot residue. His mother was able to produce a receipt, and a store clerk testified that she had purchased it recently, the joint petition said.
CNN could not immediately locate the homicide detective involved in the case, Donald Kincaid, for comment. The assistant state’s attorney at the time has since died.
The three teenagers were each arrested Thanksgiving morning, waking up with police with guns drawn on them, Watkins’ lawyer told CNN.
Evidence hidden from the defense
Lawyers involved in the case said they were “horrified” to see the amount of exculpatory evidence that was hidden from the defense team and jury. Both the suspects and trial witnesses, all minors, were interrogated by police without their parents. Potential witnesses were interviewed in a group and told to “get their story together,” according to Chestnut’s lawyers.
“We have intentional concealment and misrepresentation of the exculpatory evidence, evidence that would have showed that it was someone else other than these defendants,” Mosby said.
Anonymous calls identifying another shooter were kept from the defense, Mosby said. That teenager was seen after the shooting wearing what appeared to be Duckett’s jacket and confessing to the murder, she said.
That suspect has since died. All trial witnesses have since recanted, Mosby said.
The official apology
Mosby sat down with the men Friday and apologized, informing them that they would be freed.
“I don’t think that today is a victory, it’s a tragedy. And we need to own up to our responsibility for it,” Mosby said. “There’s no way we can repair the damage to these men, when 36 years of their life were stolen from them.”
“You were all arrested on Thanksgiving 1983. Now you are free to spend the holidays with your loved ones for the first time in 36 years,” Mosby said in a press conference.
Mosby added that Maryland currently has no formal system of compensation for those falsely convicted of a crime.
Now, she plans to advocate for laws that would establish a system of compensation for those falsely convicted, and formally require minors to have a parent in the room while being questioned by police. She has started Resurrection After Exoneration, which will offer medical help and guidance as exonerated people reintegrate to society.
Lawyers for Chestnut and Stewart said they planned to spend Thanksgiving with their respective families. Watkins’s mother died before his arrest and most of his immediate family died while he was incarcerated. His lawyer said he would be spending Thanksgiving with loved ones.
Chestnut plans on spending quiet time readjusting to life with his family and fiancé.
“It’s a lot of guys that I left behind, that are in the same situation that I’m in,” Chestnut said. “They need a voice. I had an opportunity, by the grace of God, to have someone who heard me.”