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

Williams sits in the waiting area, fielding a call from the Carrollton apartment complex she hopes will rent to Chatman. It doesn't sound good.

"So we'll pick up the deposit check and keep looking," she says, exasperated, into her pink phone. Then she hangs up and sighs heavily. The manager told her that anyone who doesn't have a job must find someone to guarantee the rent in the event of non-payment. And that person, in this case Williams, has to have a monthly income of at least six times the rent of around $700. Williams just doesn't make that kind of money with Mary Kay Cosmetics. "This is a nightmare," she says. "I hate to tell him this just isn't gonna work. He is going to be so disappointed. We looked at 10 apartments on Saturday."

For most exonerees, finding a place to live is their first challenge in the outside world. Until the legal matter of their compensation for wrongful imprisonment is resolved, their lawyers don't want to risk expunging their records and wiping out evidence of their convictions. But with their conviction remaining on their records, exonerees will find landlords reluctant to rent to them and employers hesitant to hire them.

"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 is more fortunate than some: He has a stack of news articles documenting his release and the backing of a Lubbock law firm, Glasheen, Valles & DeHoyos, that works closely with the Innocence Project of Texas to help exonerees get settled and bring federal civil rights suits against those who may be responsible for their wrongful conviction, including municipal governments, police and prosecutors.

Williams calls Kris Moore (no relation to Michelle Moore), one of the Lubbock attorneys who represents Chatman and five other exonerees in their civil rights litigation. She tells Moore about Chatman's housing dilemma. The firm would later agree to help pay his rent for six months and has similar arrangements with the other exonerees it represents.

"I went from one property management company to another saying, 'I'm willing to guarantee their rent,'" Moore would later say of his efforts to find housing for exonerees. "Time and again, they wanted me to indemnify them for any crime committed on the property. That's the kind of mentality they have—they don't care that the guy was innocent, all they care is he was in jail."

Minutes after his niece spoke with Moore about the apartment problems, Chatman walks into the waiting room with bad news. "I didn't pass, baby," he tells her. "I gotta come back and do it again tomorrow." He passed parallel parking, but his right-hand turns swung out too wide.

"OK, you need more practice," Williams says. "Hell, you only drove one time before you came up here."

Driving is just one of the mechanical challenges Chatman must master. Since his bewilderment with Creuzot's cell phone, he has learned to use his own, a new Razr, complete with Bluetooth.

At one point, he dials Joyce Ann Brown, founder and director of MASS (Mothers/Fathers for the Advancement of Social Systems), a local nonprofit that helps prisoners readjust to society through counseling and job training. Chatman plans to meet with Brown, who before starting the group spent nine years incarcerated for a crime she didn't commit. "Can I talk to Ms. Brown, please?" he says into his new phone. Then he turns to Williams, amazed. "He knows who I am!"

She nods, a bit weary. "Most offices have caller ID now, Charles." He leaves a message.

Earlier, Williams helped him open a checking account and taught him how to use an ATM card. He'd never banked before going to prison, accustomed instead to stashing cash in his pockets or underneath the carpet at his sister's house.

Even something as simple as shopping for groceries is no easy matter. "I went to the one where you had to check and sack yourself," Chatman says, laughing at his childlike innocence. "The lady had to come help me do it."

For many freed by DNA evidence, perhaps the biggest challenge is making the transition from the rigid structure of an institution to the unlimited choice of the free world. "All of them seem very hopeful," says Kris Moore. "Just getting out is such a wonder. I hope it stays that way for Charles, but I know he has the hardest part ahead of him."

The same road has been traveled by more than 200 people across the country who since 1989 have been exonerated by DNA. Last fall, The New York Times interviewed 115 exonerees and found that most had struggled to keep jobs, pay for health care, rebuild family ties and shed the psychological effects of years of false imprisonment. A third of them were now living stable lives of work, family and homeownership, but one-sixth had landed back in prison or gotten mired in drug or alcohol addiction. About half fell somewhere between those two extremes, drifting between jobs and leaning heavily on loved ones or lawyers. For most, the justice system had failed to make amends. Nearly 40 percent received no money from the government to compensate them for their time in prison, half had lawsuits pending to receive that compensation and most had received no government services since their release.

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