By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO
It has become a frequent yet still remarkable ritual outside Baltimore’s Mitchell Courthouse; an African-American man wrongly convicted and jailed for murder released after new evidence emerges.
On Dec. 18, that fraught process of granting freedom to an innocent man who had spent decades behind bars happened again when Clarence Shipley walked out of the courthouse.
It was a moment of joy for family and friends tempered by the painful reminders of years lost and another example of the indelible consequences of a justice system seemingly quick to judge, but slow to correct mistakes.
Clarence Shipley (right, blue hooded jacket) with Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and members of Shipley’s family and the State’s Attorney’s Office. Shipley was recently released after being wrongly convicted and incarcerated for 26 years. (Photo courtesy State’s Attorney’s Office)
In 1992, Shipley was convicted of murdering Kevin Smith, who was shot in 1991 while walking to a convenience store in Cherry Hill.
The case against Shipley was based upon a sole eye witness. During the investigation the witness first identified a different suspect, then later zeroed in on Shipley in a photo array.
After he exhausted his appeals, his family hired a retired homicide detective who located new witnesses. Then, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project brought the case to Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s conviction integrity unit, which reopened the case.
On Dec. 18, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge granted Shipley a new trial, and prosecutors dropped the charges.
Throughout the investigation Shipley maintained his innocence.
“One of the pillars of my administration is to seek justice over convictions and this is clearly evident in the efforts of the Conviction Integrity Unit as they work tirelessly to investigate claims of wrongful convictions, ensuring we pursue justice on all fronts,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a written statement.
Shortly after his release Shipley said he was relieved. “Freedom feels good,” Shipley said. “God is good.”The release of Shipley comes after a series of murder convictions that have been overturned as a result of a partnership between City State’s Attorney Mosby’s conviction integrity unit and the Maryland Chapter of the Innocence Project. The collaboration has led to a string of murder cases overturned based upon eyewitnesses either recanting their testimony or identifying new suspects.
Earlier this year Jerome Johnson’s conviction for the murder was overturned when investigators again found problematic and contradictory eye witness accounts.
Similar issues emerged in the case of Lamar Johnson, who was set free after serving 13 years in prison for the 2004 murder of 31-year old Carlos Sawyer in East Baltimore. His conviction was tossed after new witnesses came forward who said Johnson was not the killer.
In fact, the string of fraught murder cases prompted Mosby’s office to release a detailed overview of the errors that lead to overturning of the murder conviction of Malcolm Bryant.
In 2016, Bryant’s conviction was overturned after DNA evidence cleared him of any connection to the murder of teenage girl in 1998.
The 50-page report found that a culture of taking shortcuts and poor communication between police and prosecutors lead to miscues and outright incompetence in the handling of Bryant’s case.
Michele Nethercott, Director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore said that Mosby’s willingness to review problematic cases is vital to reforming Baltimore’s criminal justice system.
“Wrongful convictions occur in Maryland as in other states but few prosecutors in Maryland are willing to work proactively to correct these injustices,” Nethercott said. “I applaud State’s Attorney Mosby for both acknowledging that innocent people do get convicted and that prosecutors have an obligation to exonerate the innocent as well as to prosecute the guilty.”