“That was hell…. that was miserable,” those are the words of three African American Baltimore men, who have been released after spending 36 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were arrested on Thanksgiving in 1983 and accused of killing 14-year-old Dewitt Duckett.
Thirty-six years after they were convicted, a judge in Baltimore has cleared them and all charges against them dropped after authorities say they were wrongfully sentenced for the murder.
They were teenagers when they were sentenced to life in prison in 1984. Chestnut and Watkins were 16 at the time of their arrest and Stewart was 17, CNN reports. They are now in their early 50s preparing to experience adulthood on the outside for the first time.
A re-investigation earlier this year brought forth new evidence and testimony from witnesses that proved their innocence, reports WJZ CBS Baltimore.
The Baltimore Conviction Integrity Unit reopened the investigation and worked with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the University of Baltimore Innocence Project after Chestnut contacted the CIU to say all three were innocent.
The Washington Post reported Chestnut included exculpatory evidence he uncovered last year.
According to investigators, they found new evidence and testimony from four witnesses who have since recanted, saying they were pressured by police into changing their statement – that pointed the finger at a different man.
The new suspect was shot to death in 2002. The men have always maintained their innocence.
“I’ve been always dreaming of this day, dreaming of this day,” Chestnut said.
“We outside them walls but on the inside I hate to put it like this but we went through hell,” Watkins said.
“I sat on my bunk when I got the information and I cried. I didn’t know how to stop crying until a friend of mine said man your journey is coming to an end, but it’s not. My journey is just beginning because I have to learn how to live right now,” Stewart said.
Associated Press reports that an assistant prosecutor working on the case told the court in 1984 that the state did not have any reports that would have raised doubts about the defendants’ guilt even though police records had statements involving the 18-year-old and also showed trial witnesses had failed to identify the teenagers in photo lineups.
A judge sealed those documents, but Chestnut obtained them through a public records request last year.
“Everyone involved in this case — school officials, police, prosecutors, jurors, the media, and the community — rushed to judgment and allowed their tunnel vision to obscure obvious problems with the evidence,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which represents Watkins.
Armbrust added that “this case should be a lesson to everyone that the search for quick answers can lead to tragic results.”
Also, the Circuit Court judge Charles Peters told the men, the Baltimore Sun reports: “On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you gentlemen, I’m going to apologize.”
“These three men were convicted, as children, because of police and prosecutorial misconduct,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said.
“What the state, my office, did to them is wrong,” Mosby said. “They deserve so much more than an apology. We owe them real compensation – and I plan to fight for it.”
In a statement, the state’s attorney office said: “Detectives targeted the three men, all 16-year-old black boys, using coaching and coercion of other teenage witnesses to make their case”.