BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Imagine losing your freedom, locked up behind bars while your pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. For three Baltimore men and many others this was a reality.
We continue looking into the lives of the Harlem Park Three Tuesday night, grown men who as teenagers were wrongfully convicted of a murder they did not commit.
November 2019 brought to an end a nightmare that was 36 years in the making.
Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart, and Ransom Watkins were freed after they were proven innocent and now new claims detailed in a lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department and the detectives that handled their case allege that there may have been a longstanding pattern in practice of railroading innocent suspects with faked evidence, coerced testimony that continued for years.
Although they are out from behind bars, the Harlem Park Three are not free from their past and time they lost to live their lives.
Vic Carter: With your families and in life, what did you miss?
Chestnut: I missed seeing my family grow up and they missed seeing me grow up. I grew up in prison
The trio was wrongfully convicted in 1983, when they were 16 years old, of murdering their childhood friend Dewitt Duckett in the hallway of Harlem Park Middle School. It was a case that garnered national attention in which they were portrayed as calculating, savage killers.
It’s a story that attorneys say was created by detectives who they claim knowingly arrested the wrong suspects. And according to a lawsuit, hid evidence and testimony that would have exonerated all three.
“To me, it was a situation of him trying to change us, who we were as kids, make us something that we weren’t,” Watkins said. “You killers, you animals, you murderers and I am going to prove that. He did to a jury. But not to us because we are those same kids. We came from a well-knit family, we just didn’t have much.”
What they did have was each other.
“That pact that we made when we got locked up — one day the truth will be revealed. Ya’ll just gotta hold on, you gotta have that faith and you can never let that go,” Watkins said. “So if they ever separate us and you ever get weak, just remember that we love each other and nobody can ever change that.”
That unbroken pact remains intact today, nearly a year after they were free, but life on the outside has been challenging. The lives they once knew as happy-go-lucky teens in Baltimore is no more. They are living the trauma of wrongful conviction and trying to reenter a world that doesn’t understand what they endured for 36 years.
“I am 52 years old. I am still struggling to learn how to be a man. I still feel like that 16-year-old boy,” said Chestnut. “The experiences that everybody had growing up, we didn’t have that opportunity.”
Returning home also presents problems with the people they love the most. Adjusting to family can be difficult at best.
“So when I get home, we can’t connect, so they really not there,” Watkins said. “So it’s just me. When they come around I don’t feel nothing. I been gone 37 years, I don’t feel nothing and that’s tough because that’s my bloodline. I don’t feel nothing for them. I try.”
They are not alone. Others who have been wrongfully convicted tell horror stories of trying to get their lives back.
“The transition from prison is difficult for anyone — innocent or not — and it’s even more difficult when you have been locked up for something you just didn’t do,” Shawn Amburst, of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said.
Vic: What was the worst part of this for you?
Stewart: Being locked up and knowing you hadn’t done anything wrong. I guess the worst part for me was trying to convince my family.
“Watching my mother put on a façade that she was strong and that she was all right when she was going through hell all because of what they had a said I had done,” Stewart added.
Vic: When you are alone at night what goes through your mind?
Watkins: Man I am tortured I am thinking about all the things that I lost. They not here no more. You think the state care — they don’t care.
All three men confess that they need help and they are getting it, but even professionals admit they may never have a full sense of normalcy.
What they do know is that they want to help others while they help themselves.
On Wednesday, we continue the conversation and look at what these three men have in common with the millions of people who are taking to the streets as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement.