Andrew L. Urban.
Three men from Baltimore, US, who were sent to prison as teenagers for a murder they did not commit have been released after 36 years. And after overturning the convictions on November 26, 2019, “On behalf of the criminal justice system,” judge Charles Peters said, “I’m going to apologise.”
As The Australian reports, the three men, Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart, were convicted of the murder of a 14-year-old boy, DeWitt Duckett, who was shot in the neck in the corridor of a Baltimore middle school one afternoon in November 1983. He was murdered for his Georgetown University jacket, detectives said. Mr Chestnut, who was 16 at the time, was later seen wearing a Georgetown jacket but his mother produced a receipt for it.
Police identified them as suspects and pressed for convictions, even though witnesses later recanted the testimony that implicated them, and another man, Michael Willis, was seen wearing what appeared to be the victim’s jacket. Georgetown University was popular because of its basketball team. Willis, who was 18, later confessed to the murder. He died in a shooting in 2002.
Despite being minors, Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were tried as adults. They have maintained their innocence and Chestnut never ceased to try to overturn the case.
This year his plea was picked up by the city’s criminal conviction unit. Prosecutors found that crucial evidence that might have cleared them, including anonymous calls identifying Willis as the gunman, and misconduct in interviewing witnesses, were kept from the lawyers working on the case.
More than 2200 prisoners who were wrongfully convicted have been freed since 1989, when US courts began using DNA evidence in murder cases.
“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 the case should be a lesson to everyone that the search for quick answers can lead to tragic results.
Chestnut said: “It’s a lot of guys that I left behind that are in the same situation that I’m in. They need a voice. I had an opportunity, by the grace of God, to have someone who heard me.”
Long term incarceration is the yank form of an earlier British practice of banishment to the far ends of the earth. When that was achieved, they then sent some of them even further to Port Arthur in Tasmania. The motives probably were, or are, no different, race, religion, the need to set an example, the desperation to maintain a status quo, domination at all costs, they will all be in the mix somewhere. Distortions of the truth to suit, or justify an agenda is a long held practice, and not only just in the USA, Oz legal representatives are readily implicated near daily in our media. In many ways we have not advanced since the days of colonisation, and the Tasmanian legal services seem to be quite comfortable with that dynamic, or lack of it at present too.
It is not tunnel vision. It is the nominative approach. They start with the nominated guilty person first and then build the case around ‘him’. They do not follow clues leading them to the guilty party. They work backwards.
The whole system has to change.
Andrew, you raise a very important point, “tunnel vision to obscure obvious problems with the evidence”.
When accused innocent people get taken from their families or their freedom is extinguished because it appears that surmountable evidence has been established to frame them then what happens is what occurred with these three individuals.
Moreover in Australia there may also be many locked up because they did not have access to interpreters when accused, charged and sentenced and because of “tunnel vision” they may be in the same situation as these three individuals found themselves in.
We may never give it much thought until we are confronted with such instances as this US tragedy. We often hear those who oversee the prison system make remarks such as, “they all say they are innocent”. Well these three men actually were and no one was listening for 36 years.
While we can all be grateful for DNA and the abolition of the death sentence here in Australia we still need someone to push those with the “tunnel vision” to admit, “maybe, just maybe we’ve got it wrong”.
Thankfully we do have such individuals who continue to push and their honourable, often voluntary efforts to have ‘wrongfully convicted’ people released needs to be acknowledged.
Thank you once again for bringing these insights to us and keeping us consciously aware of the value of our own freedom but also a reminder of our ability to wrongfully take that freedom from another person simply because of this limited aspect, eg “tunnel vision”.
How do you say sorry after all that time???? They have lost most of their lives to a system that can and is manipulated to gain a conviction. We continue to hear more and more cases like this and I have to admit that I no longer have any faith in our justice system – here or overseas.
Brian, I couldn’t agree with you more and I love your terminology, “nominative approach”. Not sure I can say what needs to change other describing the lyrics of John Lennon’s version of “Imagine”.
‘They’ most certainly do build a case around either a him or a her and when they, whoever “they” may be, have got a likely suspect, they feel vindicated that they’ve got their ‘snare’ and feed on it like it was or can easily become a trophy.
That’s probably when the “tunnel vision” sets in.
They’ve got all they want to secure some kind of satisfactory or personal need and end up dismissing the fact that what they really were after was the “fox” and not the “bunny”. They then have a tendency to embarrassingly cover up that what they were really hunting for and what they actually got was the wrong prey.
These kind of people take away the freedom of an easy prey because of their mistakes and they well know they got it wrong. However, Karma works in mysterious ways.
This smacks of the story of Ruben (“Hurricane”) Carter , so many years ago.
Given that Rubin was a famous boxer, his story gained momentum over the years but he still was incarcerated for decades. That is, until certain folk challenged his (set up) conviction, by people, incuding a Bob Dylan song – his lyric stll haunts, “.and the all-white-Jury agreed” – and later a movie of that case.
Keep up the good work Andrew. So many people are selective in their reading. And accept judgements without question, and accept verdicts until it hits home in their own backyards and then foolishly seek empowerment. But by then it is mostly too late because the system has already entrapped you. And for those who realise too late, you probably cannot afford a defence.