Judge exonerates three men in 1983 ‘Georgetown jacket’ school killing

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Sarah Chestnut bought her son a gift in November 1983 of a popular Georgetown University Starter jacket, one that would become evidence to convict and imprison the teen and two other boys for murder.

Thirty-six years later, on Monday, the 75-year-old mother walked with some help across the street to see her son set free and his name cleared.


“Hey, mama,” said Alfred Chestnut, wrapping her in a hug outside Baltimore Circuit Court.

“My mama, right here," he told the crowd, “this is what she’s been holding onto forever, to see her son come home.”


Chestnut and co-defendants Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were formally exonerated Monday for the notorious 1983 murder of a junior high school student over a Georgetown basketball jacket. Police and prosecutors had claimed the Georgetown jacket found in Chestnut’s closet belonged to the victim. Now, they acknowledge the jacket had, in fact, come from his mother.

On this month 36 years ago, DeWitt Duckett, a ninth-grader at Harlem Park Junior High School, was shot in his neck inside the West Baltimore school. Police said the 14-year-old boy was jumped by three youths for his blue Georgetown jacket. He struggled down the hallway and collapsed in the cafeteria. School officials called his death the first homicide in a Baltimore public school, and his killing touched off a firestorm of debate over school safety.

The boy’s death also became another cautionary tale in a wave of so-called “clothing murders," cases where city youth were gunned down over sneakers or sports apparel. Duckett’s murder drew widespread attention and Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon mentioned the case in his book “Homicide.”

Police charged 16-year-olds Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart Jr. with his murder. The three were convicted on the testimony of four Harlem Park students who identified them. A judge sentenced the three teens to life in prison.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Monday the detective and prosecutor in 1983 coached and coerced the testimony of the four students. Her prosecutors appeared Monday afternoon in Baltimore Circuit Court to ask a judge to throw out the three convictions.

“Present day, all four of those witnesses have recanted,” Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb told the judge. “There is evidence of coerced pretrial preparation ... One former student told the state that they were told quote ‘Get with the program.’”

Lipscomb said police withheld exculpatory evidence, particularly interviews from other students who identified the killer as another man, who died in 2002, prosecutors said.

She said prosecutors told the Duckett family of their decision. They chose not to attend the hearing.


The three men became the latest prisoners exonerated and set free by a partnership between Mosby’s conviction integrity unit and two nonprofit innocence projects.

In May, they exonerated the East Baltimore brothers Kenneth “JR” McPherson and Eric Simmons who had been serving life terms for a 1994 murder. Investigators found new evidence that they said confirmed the brothers’ alibis.

Last 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.

In July 2018, the nonprofit investigators freed Jerome Johnson, who was wrongly convicted of murder in Park Heights and spent 30 years behind bars.

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. Bryant died of a stroke less than a year into his freedom.


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Outside the courthouse Monday, Mosby announced a program to help these men and others adjust to life outside of prison. She named her program “Resurrection After Exoneration” and said the services will range from medical care to education and mental health counseling. She also announced plans to lobby the General Assembly next session to pass legislation mandating restitution payments to those convicted wrongfully.

“We must make sure the level of coercion and coaching seen in this case never happens again,” she said.

Watkins told the crowd the three men “went through hell" in prison.

Stewart called news of their upcoming release overwhelming.

“I sat on my bunk when I got the information and I cried,” he said.

The judge wiped out their convictions and prosecutors dropped all charges. Before setting them free, Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters took a moment to address the three men.


“On behalf of the criminal justice system," he said, “and I’m sure this means very little to you gentlemen, I’m going to apologize.”