Baltimore will pay $48 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by three men arrested as teenagers and who spent 36 years in prison for a murder they did not commit, the Board of Estimates decided Wednesday. the city. The payment is the highest amount awarded in Maryland in such a case.
The men, Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart, now in their 50s, were arrested on Thanksgiving Day in 1983 in the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy. Authorities said the three men killed him because they wanted his jacket. Based on eyewitness accounts and circumstantial evidence, the three youths were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
All three men remained behind bars for years with no chance of freedom until 2018, when Mr. Chestnut submitted a public records request and discovered evidence revealing that several witnesses had identified someone else as the shooter. The person identified as the shooter died in 2002.
Their case was reinvestigated by the state’s attorney and they were released from prison in November 2019 after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge granted the state’s attorney’s request to exonerate the three men. The witness statements were later retracted, after the state’s investigation revealed that some witnesses had been pressured by police.
Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart received $2.9 million from the state of Maryland in 2020 through a compensation plan created for those who were exonerated. Later that year, the three men filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore police and the detectives involved in their arrest.
When the complaint was filed, Andrew Freeman, the lawyer for the three men, said that “police detectives cut corners and threatened witnesses.”
The case was ultimately settled for $48 million, of which the three men will each receive $14.9 million. Brown, Goldstein & Levy, the law firm that represented the men, will receive about $3 million in legal fees, according to the city Board of Estimate.
The settlement amount is the largest ever awarded in Maryland, according to Jeffrey Gutman, director of the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at George Washington University Law School, which tracks wrongful conviction settlement cases.
Brown, Goldstein & Levy did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment from Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins, Mr. Stewart and their lawyers.
Justin Conroy, chief legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, said the two sides have been negotiating a settlement since October 2022. The $48 million, “while high,” Mr. Conroy said, provides a solution to all three men.
“These are men who went to prison as teenagers and came out as young grandfathers,” Mr. Conroy said at the Estimates Committee meeting, during which the five members approved the regulation.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement read on his behalf at the meeting that settlements like Wednesday’s “evidence blatant injustices” against Baltimore residents.
“Our city is in a position where, in 2023, we are literally paying for the misconduct of BPD officers decades ago,” Mr. Scott said, referring to the city’s police department. “This is only part of the price our city must pay for writing the wrongs of this terrible history. »
The Baltimore Police Department did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the case. It was unclear whether the case directly led to changes within the department. The three men were minors when they were questioned without the presence of their parents or a lawyer.
According to the federal lawsuit, police officers burst into the rooms of Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart and arrested them in the middle of the night on Nov. 19, 1983, in the killing of DeWitt Duckett, a ninth-grader. year. Harlem Park Junior High School, the day before.
The Baltimore Police Department has been under scrutiny from the Justice Department since the federal agency released a report in 2016 showing that the force’s officers were disproportionately arresting Black residents.
At Wednesday’s meeting, City Council President Nick Mosby expressed concerns that the city is continuing to pay pensions to the officers involved in the case, all of whom are now retired.
“This comes from us repaving the roads and rebuilding the recreation centers,” Mr. Mosby said of the settlement. “The person responsible should take some ownership of it, and paying their pension for the rest is problematic.”
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which helped represent the three men when the case was reinvestigated, said on Facebook that the settlement “highlights how wrongful convictions negatively impact both individuals and the communities “.
The organization continues: “No amount of money can make up for the 36 years each man lost in prison. Baltimore taxpayers – who are not responsible for the wrongful convictions – will bear the cost of the settlement.
Mr. Mosby also said at the meeting that it was important for the city to make services available to those who have been exonerated upon their “return to society.”
“Imagine having your life taken away from you at 16 for 36 years,” Mr. Mosby said. “We literally destroyed the lives of these individuals. »