Baltimore’s mayor-controlled spending board will be asked next week to approve a $48 million settlement for the wrongful conviction of three men in a 40-year-old homicide case — an extraordinary payout likely tens of millions of dollars larger than any of its kind in recent years.

Plaintiffs Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart and Ransom Watkins — known as the “Harlem Park Three” — were exonerated four years ago in the 1983 murder of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett, a 9th grade student who was robbed of a Georgetown Starter jacket and shot in the hallway of Baltimore’s Harlem Park Junior High School. They argued that the Baltimore Police Department detectives who put them behind bars fabricated evidence to get a conviction.

Collectively, the Harlem Park Three served 108 years in prison for the crime, “the longest combined wrongful conviction term in American history,” according to their attorneys.

The proposed settlement appeared on the agenda released Wednesday for next week’s Board of Estimates meeting, where city attorneys are expected to ask the five-member board to approve the staggering payout, despite their own arguments in lawsuit proceedings that there is not sufficient evidence to turn over the decades-old convictions.

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If approved, the $48 million would likely outstrip any payout for a wrongful conviction in Baltimore in recent years, and possibly ever. In 2017, a federal jury awarded $15 million to Sabein Burgess, who had been exonerated in a 1994 murder, a sum the Chicago-based civil rights attorneys who represented the man said ranked among the largest in the country for a wrongful conviction case.

The men previously received $8.7 million in compensation from the state in March 2020.

The lawsuit filed in August 2020 against Detectives Donald Kincaid and Bryn Joyce alleged they threatened to put a 14-year-old eyewitness’s “goddamn head through [a] window” after he told police that the three men weren’t involved in the murder, causing him to give a false account. Another teenage witness, they said, said he could not identify the murderer but stated there was a single killer, not three, and that he was intimidated into identifying Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins.

“The record demonstrates that Detectives Kincaid and Joyce robbed Messrs. Chestnut, Stewart, and Watkins of the prime of their lives by fabricating incriminating evidence and concealing favorable evidence,” attorneys for the three wrote in a motion for summary judgment last year.

The detectives “also had reason to know that witness statements were unreliable, possessed exculpatory evidence, and failed to investigate the likely perpetrator,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.

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Though the Baltimore Law Department has asked the spending board to approve the settlement, attorneys hired by the city to fight the case had argued the exoneration of the Harlem Park Three was incorrect. In court filings, city attorneys asserted that the reinvestigation that cleared the men was “deeply flawed” and “turned up no physical or verifiable evidence that exonerated Plaintiffs.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott did not directly answer a question about how much money the city has set aside for settlements but said that each year finance officials confer with the Law Department to “ensure that the City will be prepared to meet its financial obligations arising from any ongoing legal disputes.”

“These settlements are a reminder of the importance of the work BPD and the City have undertaken to reform our police department and our entire approach to public safety,” the mayor’s office said.

Following Duckett’s killing in 1983, Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins were identified as suspects by the Baltimore Police Department, arrested, and charged in circuit court. At the time, their involvement was corroborated by four eyewitnesses and the three were convicted by a jury to life in prison.

“At 16-years-old, they threw me in a prison among a bunch of animals,” Watkins told The Washington Post after his exoneration. “The things I had to go through; it was torture. There’s no other way to describe it.”

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As recounted in David Simon’s book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” Kincaid encountered Watkins in prison five years later, where Watkins asked if Kincaid remembered him. When Kincaid said he did, Watkins responded: “If you remember who I am, then how the hell do you sleep at night?”

“I sleep pretty good. How do you sleep?” Kincaid said.

“How do you think I sleep?” Watkins replied. “How do I sleep when you put me here for something I didn’t do.”

“You did it,” Kincaid said.

“The hell I did,” Watkins said. “You lied then and you lyin’ now.”

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The connection of the Harlem Park Three to Duckett’s death came into doubt decades later, when former Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit began to reinvestigate the case.

Among the key pieces of evidence that attorneys for the three argue was false was the fate of Duckett’s Starter jacket, the alleged reason for his killing.

Early in the morning on Thanksgiving in 1983, police searched the homes of the Harlem Park Three and found a Georgetown Starter jacket in Chestnut’s closet. Prosecutors at the time claimed it was the same jacket taken from the victim. According to The Washington Post reporting, though, there was no blood or other damage to the jacket suggesting it belonged to Duckett. Meanwhile, Chestnut said his mother showed police a receipt for the jacket.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, documents had also surfaced showing that there were several students who identified the shooter as a man named Michael Willis, that the fourth student’s identification was the sole foundation connecting the three defendants to the crime, and there was an unexplained shift in the investigation from one perpetrator to three. In addition, notes revealed that anonymous calls implicated Willis as the gunman, that witnesses told officers that Willis later was seen wearing Duckett’s jacket, and that Willis had admitted he shot Duckett.

Willis was fatally shot in West Baltimore in 2002.

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Mosby’s reexamination found that at least two of the eyewitnesses in the conviction of the Harlem Park Three recanted their testimony. One of those witnesses, Ronald Bishop, told The New Yorker in 2021 that he was “tired of living this lie, that those three guys did it.”

The state’s attorney concluded the plaintiffs were innocent and after a judge signed off, the three were released on Nov. 25, 2019, after 36 years behind bars.

Almost a year later, Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins sued the Police Department and the police detectives, claiming Kincaid and Joyce “had coerced and fabricated witness statements and identifications,” according to the spending board summary.

During a deposition as part of the lawsuit proceedings, attorneys for the plaintiffs say Kincaid admitted that a search warrant affidavit contained two “mistake[s],” erroneously describing someone as having witnessed the murder and picked the three men out of a photo lineup when she had not.

Attorneys for the city noted that documents related to the alternate suspect had been turned over to prosecutors, but the trial judge sealed them at the time. The appellate court agreed with that decision. There were no findings that BPD officers suppressed or fabricated evidence, they said, and “even accepting” that two witness accounts were the result of coercion by police, there was no evidence that the detectives knew they were false.

In its request for the spending board to approve the settlement, the city law department states that the many years since Duckett’s death have rendered a settlement in the lawsuit almost unavoidable.

“Unfortunately, the age of the underlying convictions in this case has led to lapses in memory, unavailable witnesses, and incomplete or missing records, thus making it nearly impossible to corroborate or refute Plaintiffs’ allegations or the State’s Attorney’s findings in its reinvestigation,” they wrote in their spending board request.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

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