Three men who spent a combined 108 years in prison for a murder they did not commit filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, alleging that Baltimore Police detectives coerced false statements and manufactured a narrative that implicated the three youths in the crime.
The “Harlem Park Three” — Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart and Ransom Watkins — were freed last year by the State’s Attorney’s Office after each serving 36 years in prison for the notorious 1983 murder of a Baltimore junior high school student over a Georgetown University basketball jacket.
Their years of wrongful incarceration combine for the longest for a single crime in American history, according to their attorneys.
Earlier this year, the state Board of Public Works approved awarding $8.7 million — $2.9 million each — to the men, but the lawsuit seeks additional damages from the Baltimore Police Department for alleged constitutional violations by former police detectives Donald Kincaid, John Barrick and Bryn Joyce.
“The award from the state in no way, shape or form fully compensates them for 36 years in prison,” said Andrew Freeman, the attorney representing them. “We’re confident we can meet the high bar to prove that the police detectives violated their rights in order to wrongfully convict them, and when we prove that, they are entitled to full compensation.”
Kincaid did not return a message seeking comment. Barrick and Joyce could not be reached. A Baltimore Police spokesperson said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.
“When they sent us to prison as teenagers, they stole our lives from us. They took our families from us. They took our childhoods,” Chestnut said in a statement provided by his attorneys. “This lawsuit can’t bring back everything we lost, but it’s an important step as we try to move forward and heal.”
DeWitt Duckett, a ninth-grader at Harlem Park Junior High School, was shot in his neck inside the West Baltimore school on Nov. 18, 1983. School officials called his death the first homicide in a Baltimore public school, and his killing touched off a storm of debate over school safety.
The boy’s death also became another cautionary tale in a wave of so-called “clothing murders,” cases in which city youths were gunned down over sneakers or sports apparel.
Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins were convicted by a jury.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office re-investigated the case along with two two nonprofit innocence projects. They determined that Kincaid and the prosecutor coached the testimony of four students who identified Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins as the killers ― and the students later recanted that testimony.
Baltimore prosecutors said police discounted interviews from other students who identified another person as the killer. The man identified by the other witnesses has since died.
Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins were granted writs of actual innocence and freed just before Thanksgiving last year.
“I can’t describe what it felt like to sit in that prison cell, knowing we were innocent and that the system had failed us,” Stewart said Thursday in a statement. “I am so grateful to everyone who stayed with us, who believed in us and fought with us. We wouldn’t be free without them.”
The lawsuit said that police faced pressure to solve the high-profile case.
“To seal Plaintiffs’ fate and conceal their earlier actions, the Officer Defendants coached the four middle schoolers so that their stories would match at trial; concealed their coercive conduct that had extracted the false statements; withheld witness statements that supported the teens’ innocence; and deliberately failed to investigate — and later concealed — evidence identifying the likely perpetrator of the murder,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says the detectives’ conduct was part of a broader pattern at the time within the Baltimore police homicide unit, and points to other exonerations in which police withheld exculpatory evidence or coerced statements.
Chestnut filed a public information act request for records from his case and found police reports and notes that had not been disclosed to his defense before trial.
The city has hired a Chicago law firm to defend against wrongful-conviction cases, and in two other exoneration cases those lawyers say that the defendants manufactured documents they claimed to have received in public records requests.
Freeman said there is “no dispute” about the documents in his clients’ case.