A judge set free two brothers from East Baltimore on Friday after finding they had been wrongly convicted of a murder conspiracy 24 years ago.
Kenneth “JR” McPherson, 45, and Eric Simmons, 48, were convicted in May 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. They were exonerated during a hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court, then stepped outside to a crowd of tearful family members.
“I was in a pool, a swimming pool, and I was drowning,” McPherson said. He pointed to Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the conviction integrity unit of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
“She dove in and she grabbed me,” he said, “grabbed us out and gave us CPR. You saved my life.”
Two years ago, the brothers wrote to the state’s attorney’s office, and Lipscomb determined their case should be investigated again. Prosecutors sought help from the innocence projects at George Washington University and the University of Baltimore. The teams of researchers and students hunt for wrongful convictions.
Outside the courthouse, Simmons wrapped his grown son in a hug and kissed his cheek.
“My son was 2 years old when I got locked up,” he told the crowd.
In 1994, police arrested and accused the brothers of gunning down Anthony Wooden, 21, shortly after midnight in the Broadway East neighborhood of East Baltimore. Police found more than a dozen shots had been fired. They charged McPherson and Simmons with conspiracy to commit murder.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said the brothers had been wrongly placed among a crew of robbers and gunmen who pursued and killed Wooden. McPherson was at a party, she said; Simmons, home in bed.
“We’ve set another two innocent men free,” she said. “On behalf of the criminal justice system, I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart.”
During the old trial, one witness testified to seeing the crime from a third-floor window about 150 feet away. A 13-year-old boy — attorneys now say he was threatened with homicide charges — identified the brothers as the killers. Then he recanted his statement during trial.
Investigators found evidence to confirm the brothers’ alibis. They also found a witness who said the brothers had no role.
“JR and Eric deserve compensation from the state for the time they served in prison for a crime they didn’t do,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project at George Washington.
An affiliate of the project operates here as the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic. The brothers become the fifth and sixth men exonerated in recent years by the research teams and conviction integrity unit.
In December, Clarence Shipley Jr., 47, stepped out onto the sidewalk in downtown Baltimore as a free man. He had spent 27 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction. He too had been convicted on faulty witness testimony.
Last July, the researchers freed Jerome Johnson, who was wrongly convicted of murder in Park Heights and spent 30 years behind bars. Johnson has sued the Baltimore Police Department, accusing detectives of purposefully withholding evidence that proved him innocent.
Previously, Lamar Johnson was exonerated of murder in September 2017 after serving 13 years in prison. He had been misidentified as having the nickname of the shooter.
Malcolm Bryant was exonerated of murder in May 2016 by DNA evidence and set free after 17 years in prison. Bryan died of a stroke less than one year into his freedom.
Such work is undertaken by teams of researchers, lawyers and college students with the innocence projects. Often students and lawyers spend years working to overturn a single case.
Innocence projects attorneys in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., say they have exonerated 33 innocent men who served a combined 600 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Meanwhile, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office says it operates the only conviction integrity unit in the state.