When it was finished, the prosecutor turned and spoke directly to the prisoner. “Mr. Shipley, have a happy holiday.”
The courtroom erupted into sobs and cheers. Clarence Shipley Jr. sagged into the arms of his defense attorney because after 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, he was a free man.
Shipley was exonerated Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore Circuit Court of robbing and killing a 29-year-old chef in Cherry Hill nearly three decades ago.
He had been convicted on faulty witness testimony and imprisoned at 20 years old. Now 47, he was headed home to his wife in time for Christmas.
“Good luck, sir,” Baltimore Circuit Judge Jeffrey Geller told him.
“Thank you,” Shipley said, his voice and composure cracking.
He had maintained his innocence throughout his decades behind bars. Four years ago, his friends and family hired a retired homicide detective who uncovered mistakes in the case.
Shipley became the fourth man exonerated under the partnership of nonprofit innocence projects run by the University of Baltimore, George Washington University and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
“The system did something wrong that a man, an innocent man, in the prime of his life, spent 27 years behind bars,” Mosby said outside the courthouse.
Last July, they freed Jerome Johnson, who was wrongly convicted of murder in Park Heights and spent 30 years behind bars. Lamar Johnson was exonerated of murder in September 2017 after serving 13 years in prison. Malcolm Bryant was exonerated of murder in May 2016 by DNA evidence and set free after 17 years in prison.
The work is undertaken by teams of researchers, lawyers and college students with the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project at George Washington. Officials say they have helped secure the release and exoneration of 30 innocent men who served a combined 545 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. The students and lawyers spend years working to overturn a single case.
“It’s very difficult,” said Michele Nethercott, Shipley’s attorney. “When you are the defendant and you’ve been convicted, you bear the burden.”
In October 1991, 29 year-old Kevin Smith was shot and killed at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Cherry Hill Road as he walked from the Cherry Hill Shopping Center along with two other witnesses. The innocence project attorneys and assistant state’s attorneys in Baltimore interviewed new witnesses who identified the killer, prosecutors say, as Larry Davis. He died in 2005.
“Clarence Shipley did not commit the murder,” Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb told the judge.
Outside the courthouse, Shipley’s family had gathered to await his release. His mother, Ola, told of calling her son behind bars and telling him to have faith.
“You got to keep praying,” she said. “Look at what God did. He opened the door.”
Still, she spoke of what was lost during those years. Clarence Shipley missed the chance to see his son grow up. Another son was killed in a house fire. He missed the birth of his grandson. His wedding was behind bars at the state prison in Hagerstown.
He appeared overcome and said little before the crowd of attorneys, families and TV cameras. He said he felt blessed.
“I just kept believing in God,” he said.
Mosby said at least one witness lied during his initial trial and that her office was investigating whether to bring charges of perjury.
Still, Shipley held no ill will.
“I forgive them,” he said. “I’m just wanting to go to church.”