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

Creuzot, amicable and street smart, with a history of championing community re-entry programs, offered to pay for the testing out of his courtroom budget. "Usually the parties would pay for it," the judge says. "But when the question of who would pay came up, I said I would. There was something about him, I can't say what it was...I wanted this man's test to happen."

By mid-December, the lab managed to extract a complete DNA profile. "There was a glimmer of hope for the first time," Moore recalls. "Suddenly, he could think about being outside."

To make the DNA comparison, Creuzot had ordered Chatman returned to the Dallas County jail, and on the morning of January 2, jail guards escorted him into the holding cell adjoining Creuzot's chambers. Seated in a chair outside the cell, Chatman held his breath, steeling himself for yet another disappointment. The slight, bespectacled judge walked in and wished him a Happy New Year. Then Creuzot embraced him, tears in his eyes. "It wasn't you," the judge told him.

"I trusted the system, and I trusted it too much, I guess," says Chatman of his 1981 trial. "I thought somebody in there—the judge, the lawyer, the jury—would do the right thing."
"I trusted the system, and I trusted it too much, I guess," says Chatman of his 1981 trial. "I thought somebody in there—the judge, the lawyer, the jury—would do the right thing."

Chatman had long imagined what he'd do when his moment of freedom came, but he was so stunned, so dazed, that all he could do was sit down and try to breathe. Creuzot asked if Chatman had any family he wanted to call. Yes, Chatman replied, his aunt, Ethel Bradley, but he hadn't dialed her number in 27 years; he'd grown distant from nearly all of his family.

Creuzot held out his cell phone, but Chatman stared at it, his face blank. "What's that?" he asked. The judge showed him how to dial, and when Chatman's aunt answered, she couldn't believe it. "Oh my God!" was about all she could say.

It was a powerful moment for Creuzot, as well. His 7-year-old, Ethan, happened to be at the courthouse that day, and after telling Chatman the news, Creuzot spoke with his son. "It's very likely that Mr. Chatman has served the longest period of time in prison for something he didn't do," he told him. "Your daddy has really worked hard on this. You were just a little baby when we started talking about it."

Ethan seemed impressed, so when Creuzot ordered a Texas Land and Cattle T-bone to be delivered for Chatman, he ordered a hamburger for his son. A short time later, the burly, soft-spoken Chatman ate his first meal as a free man with the judge's son.

The next day, before the hearing for his release, Chatman grew nervous as he prepared to face the media, and Ethan agreed to stand by his side. "I drew a little strength from Ethan," Chatman says.

Attempts to reach Madalaine Magin about Chatman's exoneration proved unsuccessful.

Upon his release from the county jail, a small group of relatives surrounded him. His aunt had begun a chain of phone calls the day before, and while not everyone in their large family could get off work to meet him, he recognized a few familiar faces. There was Larry Crayton, his nephew, who had visited him several times in prison. Chatman's sister, Claudette Smith, couldn't get off work to be there, but her daughter, Chatman's niece LaFreda Williams, stood there waiting. She was 10 when he was convicted and was now a full-faced woman with two children of her own.

That moment felt like a dream. Family with whom he had cut ties, whom he hadn't heard from or seen in years, were celebrating his release. Part of him was even afraid it wasn't real, that he would awake back in prison to realize that none of this was really happening.

Only it was.

For 27 years he was more of a number than a name—32559, the number that identified him in prison. Now, on a cold, overcast day in mid-January, he goes about the business of building a new identity, starting with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Plano. Others waiting to take their driving test queue up inside the building, but Chatman has been on the inside too long.

"It's cold, but I'm getting some fresh air," he says. A single white flake floats down from the sky. He grins. "It's snowing!"

For the past week, his niece and nephew have taken turns shepherding him between government offices to help him establish his official existence in the outside world. The task required a trip to the Dallas Independent School District offices to retrieve copies of his school records and multiple visits to the Social Security Administration and various Department of Public Safety offices. Days of standing in line finally netted him a Social Security card, and now all he has to do is pass the driving test to get his license.

He's concerned, shifting his weight while he stands in the parking lot. It's not like he has logged in much time on the road recently. Even before going to prison, he had never learned to drive. "I've been practicing the last couple days," he says. "I'm most nervous about parallel parking." He will drive Williams' pink Mary Kay Cadillac for the test. A few minutes later, an officer approaches. It's time to get behind the wheel.

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