On March 4, 2020, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved payments to three wrongly convicted Marylanders, Ransom Watkins, Andrew Stewart, Alfred Chestnut, who each served 36 years in prison for a murder they did not commit. Brown, Goldstein & Levy represented Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart pro bono in their petitions before the Board.
In the early morning hours of November 24, 1983—Thanksgiving Day—police arrested the three then-16-year-old black boys for a fatal shooting in a Baltimore middle school. Beginning that day, the State of Maryland condemned them to prison for the rest of their lives. It was not until November 25, 2019, that the Circuit Court for Baltimore City recognized that Mr. Watkins, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Chestnut were innocent – as they had maintained at trial, at sentencing, and during each and every one of the 13,141 days of their wrongful incarcerations. Upon the Court’s order, the childhood friends walked out of the courthouse as free men, just three days before Thanksgiving. The triple exoneration of the men collectively referred to as the “Harlem Park Three” has garnered regional, national, and even international attention.
Current Maryland law allows the Board of Public Works to grant compensation for someone who was “erroneously convicted, sentenced, and confined under State law for a crime the individual did not commit.” In January 2020, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart, together with Mr. Chestnut, jointly petitioned the Board under this State law, requesting recognition of the enormous pain and suffering they had been forced to endure.
On Wednesday, the Board of Public Works, comprised of Governor Hogan, Treasurer Kopp, and Comptroller Franchot, granted the joint petition for compensation. Under the terms of the agreements, Mr. Watkins, Mr. Stewart, Mr. Chestnut will each receive approximately $2.9 million in state compensation. This amount was derived using an average of the State’s median household income ($81,868) multiplied by each year of wrongful incarceration. The $81,868 amount represents the highest payout per year in Maryland history to an exoneree. It also represents the highest payout per year of any state in the country that sets a compensation amount by statute. The three men will also receive funds for mental health and financial counseling and will not be precluded from bringing a lawsuit for the violation of their constitutional rights.
At the time of the Board of Public Works vote, State Treasurer Nancy Kopp said, “These were kids . . . and are only now getting the freedom they deserve and should’ve had all along.” Governor Larry Hogan added, “All three of them experienced unimaginable pain while they were incarcerated. And there’s no question they deserve to be justly compensated as they work to rebuild their lives.”
The compensation awarded to Mr. Watkins, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Chestnut comes shortly after the Board of Public Works approved payments to five other wrongly convicted Marylanders, including BGL clients Jerome Johnson and Clarence Shipley. In 2019, Brown, Goldstein & Levy attorneys led a coalition of advocates that successfully pressured the Board to compensate Maryland exonerees for the first time in 15 years.