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Ransom Watkins

Other Baltimore City County, Maryland exonerations
At 1:15 p.m., on November 18, 1983, 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett was fatally shot in the neck in a hallway of his Baltimore, Maryland junior high school and his Georgetown University Starter jacket was stolen. The shooting at the Harlem Park Junior High School was the first such fatality in a Baltimore school.

At the time Duckett was shot, he and three friends were taking a shortcut to the cafeteria via an off-limits hallway after leaving science class. One of the three (witness #3) turned back to retrieve his lunch ticket. Before he returned, a youth demanded Duckett’s jacket. The other two boys (witness #1 and witness #2) fled. When Duckett struggled to get the jacket off, he was shot in the neck with a .22-caliber revolver.

Witness #3 was on his way back when the shooting occurred. He ducked behind some lockers and peeked around the corner. After the shooting, he went to the cafeteria, where Duckett and the others had fled. Although Duckett survived long enough to get to the hospital, he was unable to speak. He was pronounced dead two hours later.

Three 16-year-old former students at the school—Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart Jr.—came under suspicion almost immediately after teachers reported they had been walking through the school, visiting classrooms, and talking to teachers before a security guard escorted them out of the building at 12:45 p.m.

Police interviewed the three, who all denied being involved. They said they left and did not return after being escorted out by the security guard 30 minutes before the shooting. At the time Chestnut was interviewed, he was wearing a Georgetown University Starter jacket—the same kind that was taken from Duckett.

On November 21, 1983, three days after the shooting, police showed a photo array to witnesses #2 and #3. No identification was made. The same two boys were shown the same array the following day, and again they did not make an identification.

Witnesses #2 and #3 also were shown a second photo array. Police said that they identified one of those in the array, Michael Willis, as someone “from the neighborhood.”

On November 23, police located a fourth witness (witness #4), who was shown the array containing the photos of Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart. This witness identified them as being involved in the robbery and shooting of Duckett. The three boys who had been with Duckett on the day of the shooting were then brought to the police station a third time, and all three identified Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart.

At 1 a.m. on November 24, 1983—Thanksgiving Day—police arrested Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart at their homes. Police recovered a Georgetown University Starter jacket from Chestnut’s closet.

All three were charged as adults with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and illegal use of a weapon.

In May 1984, during a pre-trial hearing, witness #2 testified that although he told the grand jury that he saw only one person—named Michael—involved, in fact he meant that Willis was someone he recognized from the neighborhood. Detective Donald Kincaid testified at the hearing (and at the subsequent trial) that witness #2 said prior to the trial that Willis was someone he recognized from the neighborhood. Immediately following the hearing, Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart went to trial jointly before a jury in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Teachers testified that the trio was in the school visiting classrooms of teachers they knew from when they had been students there. The three were described as acting immature and silly. The teachers testified the boys were escorted out at 12:45 p.m.

All four of the witnesses who identified the trio in the photo array (witnesses #1, #2, #3, and #4) identified them as being involved in the crime. They all testified that Watkins held Duckett, Stewart ripped off his jacket, and Chestnut shot him. Witness #4 said she saw the crime unfold while standing behind a grate that looked onto the hallway where the shooting occurred. The prosecution presented the Starter jacket seized from Chestnut as evidence.

The security guard who escorted the three out of the school testified that he told them they should be in their own school and locked the doors after sending them away. The security guard also testified on cross-examination that as emergency medical personnel were arriving at the school, he saw Michael Willis outside the school.

The prosecution contended that the three had managed to get back inside, where they spotted Duckett and killed him for his jacket.

The defense noted that a crime lab examination of Chestnut’s jacket showed no blood, hair, or tissue, and argued that if it belonged to Duckett, it should have been bloodstained since he was shot in the neck.

The defense called three other students. One testified that he was with Duckett in science class. Just before class, he saw two boys—neither of them the defendants—attempting to take the jacket from Duckett. Another testified that he walked out of the science class at the same time as witness #3, who later never said anything about seeing the crime. The third student said that in science class, Duckett told him that two boys—neither of them the defendants—had tried to take his jacket.

Chestnut’s mother testified that she had purchased two Starter jackets several weeks earlier and presented a receipt. In addition, the store clerk testified that he had sold the jackets to Chestnut’s mother, although he admitted he could not be sure the jacket that was in evidence was one that he sold her.

A defense investigator testified that in March 1984, he interviewed witnesses #1 and #3. The investigator said witness #1 said that the defendants were not the ones he saw in the hall at the time of the shooting, and that Detective Kincaid told him not to talk to the defense. Witness #3, according to investigator, said that the defendants were not in the hall at the time of the shooting.

In closing argument, the prosecution contended that any inconsistencies in the witnesses’ statements were because they were afraid of the defendants.

On May 28, 1984, the jury convicted Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and illegal use of a weapon. At sentencing, they maintained their innocence. Stewart declared, “You still didn’t get the person who did it. I’m saying we know we didn’t do it, and a lot of other people know we didn’t do it.”

Each youth was sentenced to life in prison on the murder conviction and concurrent sentences of 20 years on the other charges.

In October 1985, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld their convictions.

In 2016, Chestnut, represented by the Maryland Public Defenders Office, filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence. Ultimately, one of the 20-year sentences was removed, but the life sentence remained.

In 2017, Angela McKnight, a childhood sweetheart of Chestnut who had always believed in his innocence, became involved in the case after learning that Detective Kincaid had been involved in the case of Wendell Griffin. Griffin had been convicted of murder in 1982 in Baltimore, and, after new evidence of innocence was discovered, had agreed to enter an Alford plea – which allowed him to maintain his innocence – in order to leave prison.

McKnight reached out to Charles Curlett, who had represented Griffin in a civil lawsuit against Kincaid and other detectives. Curlett agreed to help McKnight pro bono. After reading the police reports and the trial transcript, Curlett could see that the accounts of witnesses had evolved to implicate Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins. At Curlett’s urging, McKnight hired a private investigator to try to find witnesses. And McKnight noticed that there were two other girls who were with witness #4, the witness who said she saw the incident through the grate. McKnight tracked down those girls who were with witness #4 and they said that they did not see the shooting.

That provided impetus to McKnight to keep pushing on Chestnut’s behalf. In 2018, Chestnut filed a public records request with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, and received Baltimore police reports that had not been disclosed to the defense prior to the defendants’ trial.

The reports showed that there were several students who identified the shooter as 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, the notes revealed that anonymous calls implicated Willis as the gunman, that witnesses told officers that Willis later was seen wearing DeWitt’s jacket, and that Willis had admitted he shot DeWitt.

In 2019, Chestnut wrote to the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Baltimore City District Attorney’s Office asking that his case and that of Watkins and Stewart be re-investigated based on the documents that he had obtained.

In May 2019, the unit agreed to review the case. Elizabeth Hilliard, assistant public defender in the Maryland Public Defender’s office, and Brianna Ford, deputy director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, agreed to represent Chestnut. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project lawyers Frances Walters and Isabel Corngold and the law office of Christopher Nieto represented Watkins. Boothe Ripke and Rachel Wilson, of the law office of Nathans & Biddle, represented Stewart.

During the prosecution’s re-investigation, all four witnesses recanted their identifications of Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, and all said the police had heavily coached them.

A visit to the school showed that it was physically impossible for witness #4 to have seen the shooting through the grate. Witness #4 admitted during an interview that she did not see the shooting.

Witnesses #1 and #2 recanted and also said that that witness #4 did not and could not have seen the shooting. Witness #1 recalled “many arguments” with police and the trial prosecutor because he insisted that witness #4 could not have seen the shooting if she were behind the grate.

Witness #1 said that the only things he and police agreed upon were the time and place of the murder. He said he was taken out of school numerous times and was “pressured” and “coerced” into “seeing things the police’s way.” He said he and the other witnesses were “treated like criminals.” Witness #1 said police supplied him with the facts instead of accepting what he said—that he saw one person involved in the shooting and two others who were nearby and not involved.

In his recantation, witness #2 said that he identified the defendants the third time he was shown the photo array after police told him “we have witnesses who said Chestnut, Watkins and (Stewart) did it.” Witness #2 said that his grand jury testimony—that one person named Michael was the shooter—was accurate, and that he gave false trial testimony because he was under intense pressure. Witness #2 said that the prosecutor accused him of “protecting” the defendants, and warned him that if he testified as he had in the grand jury, he could be charged with perjury or accessory after the fact.

Witness #2 said that he told the prosecution that there was “one shooter and that was Michael Willis.” He said that after the shooting, Willis stalked him and threatened to kill him. Witness #2 said Willis was in the courtroom on the day he testified. Willis approached him outside the courtroom and said that the defense was trying to say that Willis committed the crime. Witness #2 also said that Detective Kincaid showed him the photo array the third time and said, “We have testimony that the guys who did it are in the pictures.”

In his recantation, witness #3 told the prosecution that it was “asinine” to think that he could see faces in the hallway where the shooting occurred from his vantage point at the time. He recalled that at the time of the trial, all four of the witnesses were in a room together where they were “coached on what to say.”

The prosecution also located two witnesses who said they were with Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart at the school and were also escorted out. Both witnesses said that they all left the school grounds and later played video games.

The prosecution also discovered that the defendants’ trial lawyers were not provided with police reports showing that witnesses #1, #2, and #3 had failed to identify the trio the first two times they viewed the photographic array. Showing witnesses an array three time is considered a highly suggestive procedure because the witnesses have seen the suspects’ faces on two prior occasions.

In addition, the prosecution had failed to disclose that other witnesses identified Willis—who had been shot to death in 2002—as the real killer. During the re-investigation, the prosecution interviewed a witness who had provided a statement that was never disclosed to the defense. In the initial statement, the witness had said that she was with Willis at the school. When police began arriving, she said, Willis threw a gun away and fled. During the re-investigation, the witness confirmed her statement and recalled that she saw Willis the night of the shooting wearing the Georgetown jacket.

Further, the prosecution located another witness who said that she was with witness #4—who had made the first identification of Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart—at the time of the shooting. This new witness said she and witness #4 were cutting class and were not in any position to see the crime.

The prosecution interviewed all three defendants in prison. All maintained their innocence. Watkins said that when he was first questioned by Kincaid and denied involvement, the detective told him, “You have two things against you—you’re black and I have a badge.”

On November 22, 2019, lawyers for Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart filed a motion jointly with Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit, seeking to vacate the convictions and grant them writs of actual innocence.

“Each of the state’s witnesses describes multiple group trial prep meetings to coordinate what they were going to say,” the motion said. “Each state’s witness was a juvenile and interviewed at critical points without a parent or guardian,” particularly when the actual identification was said to have occurred. “Each of the students was told to ‘get with the program.’”

The motion also said that “critical, exculpating” Baltimore Police Department reports were not disclosed to the defense. The reports “reveal the existence of multiple witnesses identifying suspect Michael Willis as the shooter.”

The motion said that the trial prosecutor, Jonathan Shoup, “repeatedly proffered that there was no evidence to suggest that Willis was a suspect and that the defense had all exculpating evidence. That is just not the case.” Shoup died in 2015.

The prosecution also located three witnesses who “corroborate the veracity of the recantations (and the) identification of Michael Willis as being the shooter and acting as the sole participant.”

The motion said that “when witness testimony came near mentioning the negative arrays or Michael Willis, (Shoup) adamantly objected in an apparent attempt to prevent the existence of the negative arrays and Michael Willis from coming to light.” At one point, Shoup said that he was saying “as officer of the court” that “these photographs have nothing to do with the photographic identification of those three individuals.”

In fact, the motion said, that was false.

Prior to the trial, the motion said, there were “multiple, group trial preparation meetings led by the trial prosecutor.” Witnesses #1, #2, #3 and #4 said they attended the meetings to review and “match” their testimony. Witness #1 said the meetings were “coercive.”

The motion said the prosecution was satisfied that the witness identifications at the trial were “nullified” and that the jacket seized from Chestnut’s closet was his and not Duckett’s.

The motion also noted that all three men had repeatedly been denied parole—despite recommendations that they be released—because they refused to admit participating in the crime.

The motion said that in 1988, Watkins confronted Detective Kincaid during an encounter in prison. The conversation was recounted by David Simon, who was accompanying Kincaid, in Simon’s 1992 book Homicide: A Year of Killing in the Streets. According to the book, Watkins asked Kincaid if he remembered him. When Kincaid said he did, Watkins replied, “If you remember who I am, then how the hell do you sleep at night?”

Simon quoted the detective as saying, “I sleep pretty good. How do you sleep?”

“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.”

On November 25, 2019, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters granted the writs of actual innocence and vacated their convictions. Lipscomb then dismissed the charges.

Judge Peters then said, “On behalf of the criminal justice system, and I’m sure this means very little to you, I’m going to apologize. We’re adjourned.”

Chestnut, Watkins, and Andrews were released more than 35 years after their convictions.

“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. They deserve so much more than an apology. We owe them real compensation -- and I plan to fight for it.”

On March 4, 2020, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved $2.9 million in compensation each for Chestnut, Stewart, and Watkins. In August 2020, all three filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. In October 2023, the Baltimore Board of Estimates approved paying $48 million to settle the lawsuit.

In October 2021, writer Jennifer Gonnerman published a lengthy article in The New Yorker magazine about the case. Ron Bishop agreed to be publicly identified as student #2 and he expressed deep remorse for falsely testifying against Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins. He also provided an intimate look at how his life had been adversely shaped by the experience.

“After everything was over, I had to be in the presence of Michael Willis,” he said. “I had to watch him walk through my neighborhood.” The story said that Bishop had become increasingly convinced that Willis had shot his friend, but he told no one, he said, in part because he was scared that Willis might target him, too.

“I just learned how to maneuver. I kind of stayed out of the neighborhood,” Bishop said. “I indulged in sports. When I’d come home, it’d be late at night.”

When the CIU came to Bishop in 2019, he agreed to speak to the prosecution. “I’m tired of living this life, that those three guys did it,” Bishop said. “If I have to tell the truth and it sends me to prison, I’ll go to prison.”

In the summer of 2021, Gonnerman delivered a five-paragraph note from Bishop to a meeting with Watkins and Chestnut in person and with Stewart via Zoom. In his letter, Bishop gave an emotional apology that brought tears to Watkins’s eyes.

“For me, that’s everything,” Watkins said. “The whole time I was locked up, I used to think about why they did what they did. I used to just think about it constantly.” He paused. “Just knowing that he gets it—that means everything to me,” he said.

“Sometimes in life, that’s all you want. You just want people to recognize that ‘Man, I messed up, and for that I apologize.’ ”

“Absolutely true,” Stewart said. For years, he had believed that Bishop and the other students who had testified against them were “the worst people.” But now he said, “He just in that letter showed me that sorrow, that remorse, that hurt that he carried around for thirty-six years.” He added, “If you talk to him, tell him I appreciate that and I accept his apology.”

“Me, too,” Chestnut said.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/9/2019
Last Updated: 10/18/2023
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1983
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No