This week, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby helped free three men who spent 36 years in prison for a crime someone else committed. Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart were arrested on Thanksgiving Day in 1983 and put behind bars, based on a sham investigation in which police coerced child witnesses and prosecutors hid evidence that could have shown the three men, then teenagers, weren’t guilty.
I recognize my own story in theirs. In 2015, following seven years behind bars, I left prison after being framed by the police for a crime I didn’t commit.
We are not anomalies. Wrongful convictions are all too common in our legal system. Since 1989, more than 2,515 people have been exonerated after proving their innocence. Since then, innocent people have lost over 22,315 years of their lives and taxpayers have spent $4.12 billion incarcerating them. And as more prosecutors like Mosby take a closer look at the wrongs of the past, I expect even more of us will win back our freedom.
It’s crucial to uncover wrongful convictions — and Mosby should get credit for restarting and expanding her office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, the only CIU in the state, which examines questionable convictions from the past and had reopened this case. It’s why I campaigned for Chesa Boudin, the recently elected San Francisco district attorney, who promised to establish a Wrongful Conviction Unit for the city so that innocent people are not kept behind bars.
But this is not a victory.
These three men will leave prison after 36 years with a paper bag of possessions from when they were 16 years old. The headlines and attention from well-wishers will quickly fade. And then they will be alone. They might not know where they’re going to sleep. Their closest family members may have died or faded from their lives. They will be broke, without any job prospects, technical skills, credit, education, or even job history to rely on. Many people like me came out of prison not knowing how to use a cellphone and with no credit history. All of this makes reentry much harder.
And they will not be the people they were before. They are carrying not only the post-traumatic stress that accompanies anyone who has spent over three decades in a cage, but also the nightmarish experience of knowing that they were innocent while being surrounded by people who didn’t believe them. After I left prison, the only place I felt comfortable in the two houses I owned was in the attic — I was so accustomed to being in small places.
And the assistance they may receive early on will fail to materialize or will not last. For these three men, there will be no help from the state the day they leave prison. In Maryland, when a wrongfully convicted person is released, they can’t access any of the services available to them. The person is simply turned out, with no bus pass, no money, no ID, no social security card, no meds, nothing.
We can rejoice that these men are now free, but we need to be asking what else prosecutors and lawmakers will do to help those whose lives have been stolen from them by our broken justice system. Like Ransom Watkins said on the night of his release, “My story doesn’t stop here on this corner.”
We need more district attorneys to follow Mosby’s lead in providing support following the exonerations. Next week, Mosby is launching the Resurrection After Exoneration program in Baltimore. This program will work with other agencies and entities to connect exonerees to the services they need to get their lives on track. This includes services for their mental and physical health, case management, and education; they are assisted in acquiring IDs and other paperwork and establishing a support network to make the painful transition successful.
While money alone can’t make up for a broken life, it can help — and it’s especially critical for people who will find it difficult to find work after being robbed of the opportunity to get an education and job skills. Only a few states right now standardize that kind of compensation, notably Texas, which provides $80,000 a year to the wrongfully convicted. Mosby has announced she would fight for similar legislation from the Maryland state legislature. Other prosecutors should follow suit.
There is no way to fully restore the debt that’s owed to innocent people who have been trapped in our criminal justice system. The damage is too great. But we are owed more than our freedom. Freedom alone cannot restore a life.
In 2008, Jamal Trulove was arrested and subsequently convicted for a murder he did not commit. His conviction was overturned in 2014 for prosecutorial misconduct; in 2015, he was retried and acquitted. In 2018, a federal jury found that San Francisco police officers fabricated evidence against him and withheld exculpatory evidence. The jury awarded him $10 million. The city later settled his case for $13.1 million. Trulove plays Kofi in the movie The Last Black Man in San Francisco.