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Maryland to pay more than $8.7 million to three men recently exonerated in Baltimore student’s death in 1983

Andrew Stewart, from left, Alfred Chestnut, and Ransom Watkins speak . He is one of three men who were convicted of the November 18, 1983, murder of fellow teenager DeWitt Duckett, but were exonerated and released. November 25, 2019
Andrew Stewart, from left, Alfred Chestnut, and Ransom Watkins speak . He is one of three men who were convicted of the November 18, 1983, murder of fellow teenager DeWitt Duckett, but were exonerated and released. November 25, 2019(Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s spending panel on Wednesday is set to award more than $8.7 million to three recently exonerated men who spent more than 100 combined years in prison.

The Board of Public Works, which is chaired by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, is set to award about $2.9 million to Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart Jr. and Ransom Watkins, who were formally cleared last year of the notorious 1983 murder of a Baltimore junior high school student over a Georgetown University basketball jacket.

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The decision comes after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, a Democrat, said Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins are innocent of a 37-year-old murder of DeWitt Duckett. The ninth grader at Harlem Park Junior High School was shot in his neck inside the West Baltimore school.

Mosby said the detective and prosecutor in 1983 coached and coerced the testimony of four students who identified Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins as the killers ― and the students later recanted that testimony. Baltimore prosecutors now say police discounted interviews from other students who identified another person as the killer.

“I’m delighted that these three men have been granted the compensation they deserve, but it’s awful that they had to go through a legal process to obtain this small measure of justice," Mosby said. "I’m asking the state legislature to pass the exoneree compensation bill so that this process becomes automatic and more humane.”

Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation ― sponsored by Baltimore County Sen. Delores G. Kelley and Montgomery County Rep. Kathleen M. Dumais, both Democrats ― that would require the Board of Public Works to pay wrongfully convicted prisoners within 60 days after receiving an order from an administrative law judge. It would require the board to award a payment equal to the five-year average of the state’s median household income for each year of imprisonment.

Current law authorizes, but does not require, the board to make such payments to exonerated individuals whom prosecutors or a judge have certified as innocent.

Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins are the latest prisoners exonerated by a partnership between Mosby’s conviction integrity unit and two nonprofit innocence projects. The payments to the men will be made over seven years, with each receiving $35,140 within 30 days of the board’s approval.

Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins each served 12,964 days in prison — more than 35 years apiece — before Baltimore prosecutors granted them writs of actual innocence. They each will receive $81,868 per year of imprisonment, the five-year average of the state’s median household income, with $10,616 for mental health and financial counseling services.

Before receiving the payments, the men have to sign a release form indicating they will not sue the state, according to board documents. The release does not block the men from suing the Baltimore Police Department.

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The state payouts are the latest in a series of moves from the Board of Public Works, which is composed of Hogan, Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot and Democratic Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, to compensate exonerated prisoners for their years behind bars.

In the fall, the board approved about $9 million for five men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for decades: Jerome Johnson, Lamar Johnson, Walter Lomax, Clarence Shipley and Hubert James Williams.

Before last year, it had been 15 years since the Board of Public Works used its legal authority to pay wrongfully imprisoned people.

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