In what may be the largest payout of its kind in Baltimore history, city officials Wednesday approved a $48 million settlement to cover a trio of wrongful convictions for a 40-year-old killing — what’s known today as the case of the “Harlem Park Three.”

At the request of city attorneys, Baltimore’s mayor-controlled Board of Estimates unanimously approved the extraordinary settlement for plaintiffs Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart and Ransom Watkins. The payout comes four years after the three men were exonerated in the 1983 killing of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett in a hallway of Harlem Park Junior High School over his Georgetown Starter jacket.

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, who have argued that the Baltimore Police Department detectives who put their clients behind bars decades ago fabricated evidence and coerced witnesses in order to get a conviction.

Though attorneys with the city Law Department asked the five-member spending board to approve the Harlem Park Three settlement Wednesday, a law firm representing the city in the wrongful conviction case has argued that there was never sufficient evidence to exonerate Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins in Duckett’s killing. Rather, city attorneys said in their request that the many years since Duckett’s death have rendered a settlement almost unavoidable, citing “lapses in memory, unavailable witnesses, and incomplete or missing records.”

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Justin Conroy, chief legal counsel for the Police Department, told the board Wednesday that the city aggressively litigated the case for three years, through a summary judgement, before determining that a settlement was the least costly option. Had the city opted to go forward, the case likely would have gone to a jury trial, where attorneys representing the city felt their chances of success were low and the final cost of the payout would have been substantially higher.

“It’s very difficult to defend this case, but defend it we did,” said Conroy, who noted holes in the case discovered decades after the original convictions.

The police attorney estimated the cost of Wednesday’s settlement at $413,000 per individual for each year of wrongful incarceration. In other parts of the country, wrongful conviction cases that have gone to a jury trial have exceeded a million dollars per year of incarceration, Conroy said.

Under the settlement, each individual receives $14.9 million, and their attorneys are set to receive a total of $3.3 million.

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The $48 million agreement for the decades-old case likely outstrips 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 killing, 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.

While Baltimore is regularly forced to pay for bad behavior by police, even the individual payments to members of the Harlem Park Three are substantially more than other recent settlements. The family of Freddie Gray reached a $6.4 million settlement with the city in 2015, after his death in a hospital from injuries sustained while in police custody precipitated mass protests.

The Harlem Park Three previously received $8.7 million in compensation from the state in March 2020.

The Chicago-based law firm that defended the city in its case against the Harlem Park Three, Nathan & Kamionski LLP, deferred comment on the settlement to the Law Department, which did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Mayor Brandon Scott, who was not present for Wednesday’s meeting but entered a statement through City Administrator Faith Leach, called the settlement necessary in light of the “gross injustices” that have been perpetuated over the years against Baltimore residents. No one in Baltimore should be party to a settlement like this one again, the mayor said.

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“Our city is in a position where, in 2023, we are literally paying for the misconduct of BPD officers decades in the past,” he said. “This is just a part of the price our city must pay to right the many wrongs of this terrible history.”

Conroy said the case of the Harlem Park Three is the second brought by the Conviction Integrity Unit established under former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby that the city has settled. The other settled at $8 million for 17 years of incarceration, Conroy said.

It wasn’t until decades after Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins were convicted in the killing of Duckett that their involvement came into doubt. At the time, four witnesses tied the then-teenage boys to the crime at Harlem Park Junior High, where 14 year-old Duckett was robbed of his Georgetown Starter jacket and shot to death.

But in 2019, Mosby’s team began to reinvestigate their case, finding that multiple witnesses who had testified to the three’s guilt 36 years prior recanted their statements.

The reexamination ultimately led to the three’s exoneration. Almost a year later, they filed a lawsuit over the wrongful conviction.

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That lawsuit against against the city alleged that Detectives Donald Kincaid, John Barrick and Bryn Joyce fabricated their case against the Harlem Park Three. In one instance, the suit alleges, detectives 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 killing, causing him to give a false account.

Another teenage witness said he could not identify the killer but stated there was a single killer, not three, and that he was intimidated into identifying Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins.

While the reinvestigation by Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit led to exonerations for the three, there has been no guilty finding in Duckett’s killing since. Documents have surfaced showing that several students identified the shooter as a fourth individual named Michael Willis, who himself was killed in West Baltimore in 2002.

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.

The police narrative about the fate of the jacket at the center of Duckett’s killing has also changed in the decades since the three’s conviction. At the time, police said that a Georgetown Starter jacket found in Chestnut’s closet was the same one worn by the victim. Thirty-six years later, they conceded the jacket had come from Chestnut’s mother.

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Still, 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.”

Deputy Finance Director Bob Cenname told the spending board Wednesday that the city law department and finance officials first began saving for an a potentially “extraordinary” settlement in this case three years ago. The finance department always plans for legal settlements at the end of each fiscal year, Cenname said, and in this case the city was able to set aside the exact amount needed when it became clear months before the agreement how large the settlement would be.

The exoneration of the Harlem Park Three had no bearing on pension payments for the three detectives who put them behind bars, Conroy said. All three detectives are now retired, though it wasn’t clear Wednesday whether all of them are still enrolled in the pension program, or whether they have surpassed the post-retirement window to qualify.

In a statement after Wednesday’s settlement, City Council President Nick Mosby argued that the city should take steps to provide mental and emotional support to Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins, because “no amount of compensation can right the wrongs of 36 years of turmoil and the residual effects [for] these men, their families, and communities.”

The council president also renewed calls for changes to state or local law to ensure the city doesn’t have to keep paying the pensions of police involved in wrongful convictions or misconduct.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s even not the size — whether it’s $48 million or $48,000, we pay out these settlements on an ongoing basis,” Mosby said after the meeting, arguing that there should be financial repercussions for the individuals involved, too. The people responsible for harming residents and breeding mistrust between residents and police department “should have some level of accountability in this.”

Reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this story.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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