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

In Dallas County, the wrongfully convicted have access to less state support than parolees. "The irony is someone who did it and is out on parole has more access to those kinds of resources than someone who never did it in the first place," says Michael Ware, a former criminal defense attorney hired last year by the Dallas County District Attorney's office to review some 400 requests for post-conviction DNA testing. "Parolees at least have a parole officer who's a supervisor—someone who's providing some guidance." For instance, parole officers make sure that former inmates have housing upon their release and connect them with community services such as job training and counseling.

While Texas law provides for up to $50,000 of compensation per year of wrongful imprisonment, as well as one year of counseling, if an exoneree decides to take the statutory compensation, he must forego any civil rights claims he might have.

"It's such a ridiculously low amount to give someone for what they've missed, and it doesn't hold anyone accountable for putting an innocent man in prison," Kris Moore says. But the litigation can go on for years, and in some cases may be unwinnable because the government can assert claims of sovereign immunity.

Chatman is receiving some financial assistance from the law firm, which in addition to helping him pay his rent, has paid for new furniture and arranged financing for his new GMC Sierra pickup. But it can't go on helping him indefinitely. "We'd like to see more programs, more grants that would help these guys transition back to life," Kris Moore says.

On top of their physical needs, exonerees have suffered psychological wounds from years of being locked up without cause. "These guys are a lot different from the regular guys coming out," attorney Blackburn says. "It's a lot harder for them to swallow going back to regular existence because of what regular society has done to them. They have a deeper grudge."

There is a sense of powerlessness, betrayal and fear that is difficult to shake. Michelle Moore, the Dallas County public defender who represented Chatman, recalls another exoneree who was terrified to take the bus. "A lady sat down next to him, and he thought, 'What if she yells "rape"? They'll come and get me.'"

For Chatman, the swirl of emotions, memories and spiraling thoughts tends to come when he lies down at the end of the day. He's been sleeping only a few hours each night, watching television until he drifts off. "My family, they don't understand why I stay up," he says. "I'll lay there and all that stuff comes back—what happened to me, the things I did, prison life...My family tries to help me, but they don't know what I need. I don't know what I need."

On a crisp morning in late January, Chatman stands in the parking lot of his new apartment complex, a brick and wood development on a wide road in Carrollton. The uniform units, pool and manicured landscaping couldn't be more different from his childhood neighborhood in Oak Cliff, which he recently drove through. He was surprised to see so many boarded-up houses. He climbs into the driver's seat of his black pickup wearing jeans, a button-up shirt and a black do-rag. A few days before, he passed the driving test on the second try.

"I'm scared to get on the freeway—I just followed LaFreda here," he says. His family made certain his truck was hooked up to OnStar, the directional assistance service, and he's testing it out. Tentatively, he pushes a button on the rearview mirror and a voice comes over the speaker. "Welcome to OnStar," it says. "How can I assist you, Mr. Chatman?"

Doing his best to act nonchalant, as if he has always been able to do this, he asks directions to the nearest Wachovia bank.

He has a busy day ahead of him. He declined a request from the city of Carrollton to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. march that morning because he needed time to himself and has an apartment full of furniture to arrange. Later he plans to get together with his old girlfriend, Cynthia, and her family. He was close to her mother and sister growing up. "I'm not looking to rekindle anything," he is careful to say. "She has kids, and I think she's married."

A few minutes later, he directs two men who haul his dining room table, chair and two couches up the stairs and into his one-bedroom apartment. "This is nice, huh?" he says, looking around. "'Course, I don't have anything to compare it to since it's my first apartment."

Then his niece arrives with his sister, who gets her first glimpse of his apartment. Smith eyes the beige and black color scheme with approval. "I'm gonna spend lots of time here—till you get a girlfriend—when you get a girlfriend I'll stay home." She and her brother have a lot of time to make up for.

In the 27 years after she testified in her brother's case, she didn't visit him once. When she recalls this, she tears up. "At first, we thought we could get him out," she says. "But then we realized it was way beyond our control—we didn't have money for lawyers. It was devastating. I feel like I let him down—like we should have kept in better contact."

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