Wendell Griffin started serving his life sentence in 1982, about two years before Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart went to prison for a murder they did not commit. On Nov. 22, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby asked Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters to vacate the convictions of Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart.
The case had been reviewed by Mosby’s conviction integrity unit. During its investigation, the unit discovered that police and a prosecutor coached the testimony of four witnesses, all of whom have since recanted. Baltimore homicide detective Donald Kincaid led the investigation.
“I smiled when I first seen it and heard the news,” Griffin told The Appeal. “I thanked the good Lord and I said to myself—man, 36 years.”
In 1983, Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart, who were 16 at the time of the crime, were arrested for the fatal shooting of DeWitt Duckett, 14, inside a Baltimore high school for his Georgetown basketball jacket. When Kincaid questioned Watkins he told him, “You have two strikes against you: You’re Black and I have a badge.” All three were tried as adults and convicted.
David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” described Watkins as a “thick-framed 19-year-old monster” in his 1991 book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” Simon also described an interaction between Watkins and Kincaid inside the Maryland Penitentiary, about five years into Watkins’s life sentence. Watkins told Kincaid he was innocent, and asked how he could sleep at night. While he argued his case, Simon wrote, Kincaid’s supervisor Jerry “Jay” Landsman said, “We’re done with this asshole, send in the next guy.”
For decades, Griffin has claimed that he too was wrongly convicted of murder. But the similarities between Griffin and the convictions of Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart don’t end there. In both cases, Kincaid is accused of misconduct.
Unlike the men exonerated in late November, however, Griffin is free but still fighting his conviction. Mosby’s office, as well as the Maryland attorney general’s office, have opposed his claims in court. The state’s acknowledgment of Kincaid’s misconduct, Griffin hopes, may allow him to finally clear his name.
“Wendell Griffin’s claims of innocence has always been predicated at least in part on misconduct by the police,” his attorney, Charles N. Curlett Jr., told The Appeal. “The allegations that were made in Wendell Griffin’s complaint were not unique to his case.”
On March 8, 1982, Griffin was convicted for the 1981 murder of James Wise and sentenced to life in prison. But well before the trial began there was evidence that Griffin had nothing to do with the homicide. Two witnesses told Kincaid and another detective, Edward Brown, that they saw the suspect immediately after the shooting. Neither witness identified Griffin from photo arrays. One witness, Annie Wyche, told the detectives of Griffin’s picture, “It looks just like him, but it’s not him.”
It appears that this information was never shared with the prosecutor, who would have been constitutionally obligated to turn it over to the defense, according to Griffin’s civil suit. It wasn’t revealed until 2011 in response to a public records request filed by Griffin’s appellate counsel at that time. Prosecutors then presented Griffin with two options, according to his court filings: His sentence could be modified to time served, but he would have to waive his post-conviction claims or he could face a retrial.
Griffin, then 60, agreed to time served and was freed on May 23, 2012. During his resentencing, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Leedy defended the conviction, telling the court that, “Mr. Griffin for the rest of his life will remain convicted for the murder.” Leedy also said the state was “not convinced that there were, in fact, any Brady violations.”
Despite the mandate for police and prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady vs. Maryland, Griffin’s attorneys maintain that when he was convicted, the Baltimore police routinely failed to disclose information that could undermine the state’s case. During his trial, the prosecutor told the judge that the state only had to disclose pretrial statements if the witness was called to testify.
Indeed, Mosby said of the Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart case that “the prosecutor in the case told a straight-up lie about exculpatory evidence he had.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 21 out of 25 exonerations from Baltimore involved misconduct by law enforcement or a government official. In 1988, Jerome Johnson was charged in the murder of Aaron Taylor, even though a teenage girl, who was with Taylor moments before the murder, identified another man as the shooter and did not place Johnson at the scene.
In 2018, Johnson was exonerated by Mosby’s office after the exculpatory witness statement that police never turned over to the state’s attorney’s office was discovered. Johnson served almost 30 years in prison. “The unconstitutional conduct at issue in Mr. Johnson’s case is part of a longstanding pattern and practice of suppressing exculpatory and impeachment evidence,” wrote Johnson’s attorneys in a federal civil rights complaint, echoing the claims of Griffin’s counsel. “The BPD has systematically suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence over the course of decades.”
In the wake of an exoneration, similar cases should be reviewed to uncover the scope of potential misconduct, advocates say. If one person is implicated in multiple wrongful convictions, as is the case with Kincaid, it may be necessary to focus on his cases, according to Colin Miller, associate dean for faculty development at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a co-host of “Undisclosed,” a podcast that investigates cases of wrongful convictions.
Miller said this task is particularly complicated in Baltimore where misconduct has been “rampant,” so one detective’s work should not be reviewed to the exclusion of others. Miller noted the recent Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force scandal in which nine officers have been convicted of a range of crimes, including selling drugs and armed robberies. On Dec. 3, Mosby testified before a state panel on the Gun Trace Task Force that her office has a list of 305 officers with credibility issues who it will not call to testify.
“These issues continue to persist,” said Miller. “I wish I could say this is a historical relic, but unfortunately it’s something that continues on into [the] 21st century.”
Since his 2012 release, Griffin returned to Baltimore and began work as a truck driver. In November 2013, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore police and Kincaid, Brown, and Landsman. In May 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed his civil rights lawsuit, citing the fact that he was still convicted of Wise’s murder.
Griffin’s criminal case is now with the Maryland appellate courts. His attorneys have argued that his conviction should be vacated because in 2012 he was presented with a “Hobson’s choice” of challenging his conviction and facing a new trial, or getting released from prison. Most recently, in October, he petitioned the Court of Appeals of Maryland; his petition is still pending.
Both Mosby’s office and the attorney general’s office have opposed Griffin’s motions, largely on procedural grounds. “Petitioner had his ‘day in court,’ and he was satisfied at that time with the outcome—which was in his favor,” Leedy wrote to the circuit court in 2017. “Now, years later, having buyer’s remorse, he wishes to come back into court.” Leedy currently works in Mosby’s conviction integrity unit.
On Nov. 27, Mosby told the New York Times that she would continue to uncover wrongful convictions. Prosecutors have an obligation, she said, to “right the wrongs of the past.”
Griffin and Curlett agree. They said that the exonerations of Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart should cause the state’s attorney’s office to reconsider its position on Griffin’s case and support his innocence claim.
“We hope that the state’s attorney would take a fresh look at Mr.Griffin’s case in light of who was involved and the allegations that have been made,” said Curlett. “With this new perspective there’s an opportunity here to achieve justice, and that’s what we hope will happen.”
But when The Appeal asked Mosby’s office if they were planning to change their position on Griffin’s case in light of last month’s exonerations, Communications Director Zy Richardson wrote in an email, “not at this time. While the cases do involve the same detective, there are many factors that are considered in reviewing and evaluating cases which each have their own unique facts, evidence and circumstances. The evaluation result in the exoneration cases was that the three men were factually innocent. Based on this determination, the appropriate course of action was to ultimately dismiss the cases and release each of the men. The totality of the known circumstances in Mr. Griffin’s case resulted in the relief obtained in 2012 which was a reduced sentence and release from prison.”
The Baltimore Police Department declined to comment on Griffin’s case or last month’s exonerations.
Now 68, Griffin has been fighting his conviction for more than half his life. “Locked up that long, you develop patience where you don’t want to,” he said. “I said in court 36 years ago and I’m saying now, that I’m innocent of the charges that I was convicted of.”