Harlem Park Three: Meet Angela McKnight who helped exonerate trio wrongfully convicted of 1983 murder

BALTIMORE - Angela McKnight was an unsung hero in setting free the Harlem Park Three, who were exonerated decades after they were convicted of a 1983 murder.

The Harlem Park Three each spent 36 years in prison when they were wrongfully convicted for the 1983 murder of 14-year-old Dewitt Duckett.

Recently, the three men won a record $48 million settlement from Baltimore City.

But how they got to this point relied on a key piece of evidence in the case with the help of a childhood friend.

McKnight spoke exclusively with WJZ about the case about how her evidence helped set the Harlem Park Three free.

"We were in Hilton Park and I was about 14 years old, so this was around the time that I met them," McKnight said.

McKnight was an impressionable teen in the early 1980s. She became friends with the now exonerated Ransom Watkins and his family.

"Ransom Watkins' mother and my mother were good friends, so I met Ransom and I met Alfred through Ransom, so Alfred (Chestnut) became my childhood sweetheart," McKnight said.

This sweetheart was a teenage student at Walbrook High School doing normal teenage things with her new teenage friends.

"They were just kids, you know, we laughed, we played together, we hung out together," McKnight said. "That was it, they were just normal teenagers riding bicycles, just doing things that teenagers did."

Teenage things were wearing the latest trends and being fashionably forward, including wearing what at the time was a hot-selling $65 Georgetown varsity jacket.

That's what Alfred Chestnut was wearing when he was questioned by Baltimore Police Detective Donald Kinkaid, just one day after the first murder in Baltimore City Schools history.

Duckett was shot and killed for that same kind of jacket in the quiet hallway of Harlem Park Junior High on November 18, 1983.

"I know we were all upset," McKnight said. "I would hear the adults talk about the case and how it was being treated and how it was getting so much attention in the news."

News of this case dominated Baltimore and national media headlines.

Along with Chestnut, Watkins and Andrew Stewart were also questioned by Detective Kincaid.

They maintained their innocence, but as it turned out, despite several witnesses identifying someone else, the fix was already in.

"It was a situation where he was trying to change us and who we were as kids, making us something that we weren't, 'You animals, you killers, you murderers and I'm going to prove that,'" Watkins said.

But these three teenage boys had to quickly become men as they were paraded in front of cameras while in police custody and for the trial that wrongly jailed them for 36 years.

Again and again and again they maintained their innocence through the years, leaning on one another to stay encouraged and one day see their freedom again.

"I remember standing in the hallway with my mom and she was holding me and I was crying and I remember them taking them out in chains right," McKnight said.

This loyal friend initially kept up with the Harlem Park Three when they were jailed at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

A photo shared by McKnight shows her with Chestnut smiling through the pain of their injustice during a jail visit.

"Sitting in the visiting room of the Maryland Penitentiary and I told them I'm going to go to school and I'm going to help you with your innocence," McKnight said. I went to school, but I didn't come back until 29 years later."

McKnight would go on with her life.

She graduated from Morgan State University in 1993 with a degree in social work.

As a single mother, she raised her daughter who is now a journalist.

All those years went by before McKnight wondered one day in 2017 if her childhood sweetheart was a free man.

"You know, I was saddened to hear that he was still in that situation because after all these years I thought, 'Hey maybe they went home,'" McKnight said.

Through continued connections to Chestnut's family, McKnight talked to her childhood sweetheart again and started digging through years of court transcripts of them fighting for their innocence.

"I didn't like what I saw," she said.

She then came across a news article about the case of Wendell Griffin who was serving a life sentence after being convicted of murder in 1982 in Baltimore, although mounting evidence suggested he was not the right suspect.

After helping Chestnut write countless letters to the Innocence Project and other advocates to help, McKnight found a link about the lead detective on Griffin's case which led to the rest of his life sentence being vacated in 2012. Both of these cases were led by  Baltimore Police Detective Donald Kincaid.

"You know I'm thinking if he's done it already in one case and it's already been determined in a court of law that this is what happened, then what's the likelihood that he didn't do the same thing in their case," McKnight said.

And that's where the ball starts rolling toward long-awaited justice for the Harlem Park Three.

With the help of various advocates, Chestnut penned a five-page letter along with investigative reports of his case to former Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

"We just knew it was going to happen, right?" McKnight said.

That prompted a re-investigation into a key witness, who at last, remorsefully recanted his false testimony, leading the three men to freedom on November 22. 2019, thanks in huge part to teenage friendship and a childhood sweetheart reunited after almost four decades.

"Just to see how it ended, it's a relief," McKnight said.

It was a relief and a gigantic weight off the shoulders of McKnight who growing up didn't believe there was anything she could do to help them.

"16-year-old me had accepted that this is what happens to you when you're Black and you're poor," McKnight said.

It was the spirit of her mother Ms. Jackie, who died just a year before the men were set free, that led her to become a community outreach specialist.

"She knew that, I don't know, she was proud of me but she knew that they were going to come out," McKnight said.

Saying goodbye to Matthew Perry

Vice President Kamala Harris: The 2023 60 Minutes Interview

Indoor air systems “absolutely key” in curbing spread of viruses | 60 Minutes