Before Charles Chatman walked out of prison last month, before he was reunited with his family, before his story graced the pages of The New York Times and he was invited onto Dr. Phil as a heroic symbol of broken justice, he was just another convicted sex offender who swore he was innocent.
Chatman was 21 years old in 1981 when he was wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to 99 years in prison. In the time that followed, he moved between hope that his case would be reopened and anger at the prolonged injustice he felt powerless to stop.
He spent his early years in prison trying to keep his supposed crime a secret, ready to defend himself from inmates who called him out for being a rapist. As time dragged on, his anger turned to hate and he picked fights, mostly with white inmates, who for him personified a racist system that allowed a mostly white jury to sentence a black man to prison solely on the word of a white woman.
"I believe I was accused and tried and convicted because of my race," he says. "That thought, in that place, had time to fester, build up. There were times it was so bad it was consuming me. I couldn't be around people of other races."
Things got so bad that he couldn't sleep, couldn't function; he stopped returning his family's letters and pulled away from them. He preferred the quiet of solitary confinement to human contact, particularly dreading visits from the women in his family. He sensed lingering doubt in their eyes. Was he a rapist or not?
Then, in the spring of 2001, everything changed. He was tossed into solitary at the Mark Michael Unit just outside of Tennessee Colony for nine days after spouting a homosexual slur at a guard. Chatman, 5-foot-9, shy and built like a block, filled the silence by reading his Bible, the only book allowed in solitary. His favorite verse was from Psalms 27. "Wait on the Lord," it read. "Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: Wait, I say, on the Lord."
But Chatman was tired of waiting. He'd waited 20 years, and lately he thought the waiting might break him. Months before, he had learned of a bill working its way through the Texas Legislature that would give convicts who met certain statutory requirements access to DNA testing. He had gotten a copy of the legislation and began filing motions requesting testing, even before the bill became law.
Chatman settled onto the cot in his cell, the only sound the thin mattress shifting under his weight. He tried to focus on his tattered Bible. And then he heard it. A voice. "Get up, Charles," the voice said. "You're going to succeed." Chatman sat up and looked around, figuring it was God. But what was he supposed to do? All he could think of was to walk over to the desk, sit down and with slow, deliberate strokes, pen yet another motion to the Dallas district court that 20 years earlier had convicted him of a rape he didn't commit.
A few days later, a letter arrived—the first good news he had received since getting arrested in 1981: Judge John Creuzot had determined his request for DNA testing had merit and appointed an attorney to his case to begin the process.
Another six and a half years would elapse before Chatman became the 15th man in Dallas County to be freed by DNA evidence. Chatman's 27 years behind bars is the longest term of wrongful imprisonment for any DNA exoneree in Texas, and one of the longest in the nation.
His case is representative of two of the most prevalent causes of wrongful convictions—eyewitness misidentification and reliance on forensic evidence of limited value. Chatman himself is emblematic of those who are most often unjustly imprisoned: black men accused of raping white women. And with Dallas County having more DNA exonerations than any other county in the country, as well as a district attorney who has made national headlines for his commitment to justice for the wrongly convicted, a steady flow of innocent prisoners may yet follow in Chatman's footsteps.
Walking out of prison in January, after decades of being told what to do and when to do it, Chatman, at 47, finds himself facing a new challenge. Imagine being frozen in time, while outside everything changed—cars, clothes, culture. But he stayed the same, trapped in a 1981 version of himself while anger and resentment ate away at him. He kept a form letter describing his plight, sending it to lawyers and judges, reporters and politicians and talk show hosts. But for the most part, no one believed him. Until one day, they did.
And suddenly, like an astronaut returning to earth, he re-enters this changed world, which seems to be spinning faster. There is so much to learn—cell phones, ATM machines and computers, new highways, new buildings and new family members. There is a local network of social service agencies—nonprofits and faith-based institutions—that can help ease Chatman's transition back into the community. And the state of Texas has a compensation system that can provide Chatman with $50,000 for each year he was imprisoned. But what amount of money can fairly compensate him for the years he has lost and the damage he has endured by living behind bars for 27 years as an innocent man?