Three Baltimore men who each served 36 years in prison after they were wrongfully convicted of murder as teenagers praised God with their family and friends after they were exonerated and released Monday.
"I really don't have the words to say, but I just thank God. It's surreal (to be released)," Andrew Stewart told WBAL-TV Baltimore.
Stewart, along with Alfred Chestnut and Ransom Watkins, were all just 16-years-old when they were first imprisoned for the murder of Dewitt Duckett, 14, on Nov. 18, 1983, at Harlem Park Junior High School.
On Monday, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters declared all three men innocent and apologized for what happened to them, The Washington Post reported.
“On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologize,” Peters said.
Stewart's mother, Mary Stewart, also praised God in an interview with WBAL-TV.
“This is the first time I've been able to hug my son in about 20-some years. This is wonderful. God bless, God is good all the time, not sometimes, but all the time," she said.
According to The Washington Post, the exonerations were set in motion due to the perseverance of Chestnut, now 52, who kept pushing for a review of the case against him and his childhood friends.
This spring, his claim of innocence was picked up by the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office’s Conviction Integrity Unit which found that the convictions were based on false witness testimony as well as evidence of another assailant being ignored.
“This is overwhelming,” Chestnut told media of his release. “I always dreamed of this. My mom, this is what she’s been holding on to forever. To see her son come home.”
Chestnut and his friends were held together for 12 years at the Maryland Penitentiary before they were eventually split up.
Stewart, 53, told The Washington Post he learned to accept “the significance of faith and the value of God” while he was in prison where he also taught Bible classes. Despite his faith, however, he had given up hope that he would ever be released but was determined to keep praising God anyway.
“If this is where God wants me to rest my head for the rest of my life, this is where I’m going to serve Jesus Christ for the rest of my life,” he said he told himself one day during Bible class.
In May, Chestnut wrote to the office of Baltimore City prosecutor Marilyn Mosby after he saw her discussing the Conviction Integrity Unit on television.
In his letter, he included new evidence he’d uncovered last year that incriminated Michael Willis, the man authorities now say was the actual shooter. Once the unit got involved they were stunned by what they discovered.
“Two individuals called in saying Michael Willis was the shooter,” Lauren Lipscomb, the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, told The Washington Post. One witness reportedly picked Willis out of a photo array as the shooter. Another student also [said they saw] Willis run from the school and throw away a handgun. The reports on all of this were not given to the defense. “You cannot make this up,” Lipscomb told the publication. “It is just outrageous.”
Duckett was reportedly shot dead for a Georgetown University basketball jacket, police said. The three teenagers at the time had been skipping high school classes to visit former teachers at Harlem Park Junior High. Their teachers recalled them as being "silly," but not threatening. School security had also said that the boys left campus about a half-hour before Duckett’s murder.
While police found a Georgetown jacket in Chestnut's bedroom during the investigation, they failed to note that no blood or gunshot residue was found on Chestnut's jacket and his mother was able to produce a receipt for it. A store clerk also testified that Chestnut’s mother had purchased the jacket.
Donald Kincaid, the lead detective on the case, insisted to The Washington Post that there was nothing improper about their investigation.
“What would I get out of that?” Kincaid asked Monday. “You think for one minute I want to send three young boys to prison for the rest of their life … I didn’t know those boys. I didn’t know them from Adam. Why would I want to do something like that?”
When the men learned from Mosby that they would be released, Chestnut said: “I feel like all these years I’ve been saying the same thing. Finally, somebody heard my cry. I give thanks to God and Marilyn Mosby. She’s been doing a lot of work for guys in my situation.”
Stewart said: “I broke down crying. I cried like a baby.”