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November 26, 2019

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Alfred Chesnut, Andrew Stewart, and Ransom Watkins
From The Washington Post: Arrested as teenagers, three African-American men were exonerated in Baltimore on Monday, after spending thirty six years behind bars for wrongful murder convictions.
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free..." - Luke 4:18
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart were arrested at age sixteen on Thanksgiving Day, 1983, and wrongfully charged with and convicted for murder. From the time of their arrest and throughout their incarceration, the three men, all childhood friends, always proclaimed their innocence. As the years wore on, two gave up hope for justice, but one, Alfred Chestnut, kept pushing for a review of their case. After he saw Baltimore’s state prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, on TV discussing the state’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which is dedicated to uncovering wrongful convictions, he sent her a handwritten letter discussing their case and including previously suppressed evidence he’d uncovered that incriminated the actual murderer. 

Baltimore prosecutors began reviewing the case and soon discovered that the original prosecutor had concealed evidence pointing to the killer, while encouraging false witness testimony to build the case against the innocent friends. Upon realizing that there was a possibility of actual innocence, Mosby’s office arranged for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and other lawyers to represent the men. On Monday, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters declared them innocent, all charges were dropped, and they were released. 

In discussing the terrible injustice, Mosby discussed the role of racism in their convictions, noting that one was told by the interrogating officer, “You have two strikes against you: You’re black and I have a badge.” As Mosby acknowledged, “We know that people of color bear the brunt of the criminal justice system. As we try to make strides toward reducing mass incarceration, we have to be honest about how race plays into the criminal justice system.” The racial bias in our criminal justice system is pervasive and well documented; it exists at every level, from investigations to charging decisions to plea bargaining to trials to sentencing.

I initially titled this “Justice, thirty-six years late” and immediately realized that was wrong. These men are exonerated, but that is not justice. There is no justice for stealing thirty-six years of a man’s life. Think back to where you were in 1983. Think of all that you have lived and done and all the people you have loved since then. These men have been incarcerated all that time. At 16 years old, they threw me in a prison among a bunch of animals,” Watkins, now 52, said in a phone interview Sunday. “The things I had to go through, it was torture. There’s no other way to describe it.”  

Fifty prosecutors across the country have launched Conviction Integrity Units to review old cases and uncover wrongful convictions. But as Shawn Armbrust, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, put it: “You just have to wonder about how many cases there are in places where prosecutors aren’t willing to take a serious look at claims of innocence.”
Get involved in criminal justice reform. There are Innocence Projects throughout the country, as well as countless other organizations devoted to reforming the system and to helping those affected by it. You can volunteer with an organization in your area that helps people who have been incarcerated rebuild their lives and reunite with their families. You can donate to an Innocence Project like the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project that helped exonerate Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart.
God of mercy, thank you for keeping hope alive in Alfred Chestnut for thirty-six years. Give him, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart strength and courage as they reenter a world greatly changed. Give comfort, hope, and strength to all the innocent men and women who are still imprisoned. Bless all those who are dedicated to reforming our very broken system. Amen.
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