Life After DNA Exoneration

After 27 years in prison, DNA exoneree Charles Chatman tries to pick up the pieces and catch up with a world that has left him behind

When the trial began on August 12, the state called Magin as its first witness. After she described the sordid details of her rape, the prosecutor turned to the final line of questioning. "I would like for you to look around the courtroom today and if you see the individual who did these things to you, will you point him out for the court?"

"Yes," she replied, staring at Chatman. "He's the black man sitting at the table wearing the cream-colored pullover sweater."

Chatman felt as though he was trapped in some hellish nightmare. He couldn't believe all these people thought he did this. He had a girlfriend, Cynthia—they had met in high school—what would she think? Even worse, what about his sister, aunts and nieces? "It was really degrading," he would say later. "The prosecutor made me seem like I was the most horrible person on earth."

"It just doesn't seem real," says Williams, Chatman's niece. "Because when he left, I was 10."
"It just doesn't seem real," says Williams, Chatman's niece. "Because when he left, I was 10."

Smith testified that her brother worked for her cleaning company the night of the rape. She thought there was a log book somewhere that would bear his signature for picking up his pay, but she hadn't been able to find it.

The alibi that Smith had provided was no match for the certainty of Magin's eyewitness testimony, which was corroborated somewhat by a forensic serologist who testified that she had determined from sperm removed from the victim's bed sheets and vagina that Chatman's blood type—type O—matched the blood type of the perpetrator. The fact that 40 percent of the black male population possessed the same blood type was of little moment to the jury. On August 13, it returned a verdict of guilty. Eight days later, Judge John Mead sentenced Chatman to 99 years in prison.

Chatman was stunned. "I didn't understand the system," he would say later. "I trusted the system, and I trusted it too much, I guess. I thought someone, somebody in there—the judge, the lawyer, the jury—would do the right thing."

But the right thing wasn't done—not until Chatman, through his court-appointed lawyer, filed a motion for DNA testing. And even then, the state contested the motion, arguing in its response that the "unequivocal" testimony of Magin "alone is sufficient to support Chatman's conviction." Creuzot disagreed and in 2002 granted Chatman's request.

But it took two more years and a new lawyer—public defender Michelle Moore—before the Orchid Cellmark Laboratory in Dallas determined that it had testable evidence that could contain DNA. And it wasn't until June 2004 that the lab reported a new obstacle: There wasn't enough biological evidence remaining to extract a complete DNA profile, and if they tested it, they ran the risk of destroying it.

When Moore broke the news, she remembers Chatman's shoulders slumping, a defeated look on his face.

"He just had this look in his eye, like, 'How can this be happening?'" she recalls. It could have been the end of Chatman's efforts if not for an idea that came from talks between the attorneys and the judge. Why not send the biological evidence back to the Southwest Institute of Forensic Science to be preserved until testing technology improved? Creuzot signed the order for storage of the evidence.

There was nothing for Chatman to do but wait. "At first I kept going to the prison law library, but I couldn't find anything that would speed up the process," he recalls. "I was down about it, frustrated." One thing that helped was praying with a Christian prison ministry. Its sessions were some of the few times he didn't notice friction between inmates of different races or gangs, and most important, they helped alleviate his rage.

Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, a consortium of university students and volunteer lawyers dedicated to assisting the wrongly convicted, says many of the exonerees he has worked with were able to maintain their resolve in prison by committing themselves to religion, whether Islam, Judaism or Christianity. "The guys that develop some spiritual mechanism to get outside themselves have done a lot better," he says.

Whether it was religion or what Chatman calls his natural "hard-headedness," he had a tireless tenacity that helped him through his ordeal. He shocked fellow inmates when he refused to take parole in 2001 and again in 2004. The parole board asked him to recount his crime, and he refused. To him, it would have been an admission of guilt, and he didn't want to walk back into the world as a convicted sex offender. "Life in prison for a sex crime is hell," he would say later. "I believed it would be worse on the outside—trying to get a place to live, find a job, face my family."

After three years of waiting, in January 2007 he got a call from his lawyer. Moore had spoken with lab technicians at Orchid Cellmark who told her that they now had the technology to test the sperm sample. There was still a risk the entire sample could be consumed without obtaining a complete profile, but Chatman insisted they proceed, figuring it was his only chance.

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