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?
On January 14, 1981, Madalaine Magin, 52, arrived home from her nursing duties at Dallas' Methodist Hospital around 5:30 p.m. After her mother and sister died, leaving her alone in the Oak Cliff house they shared, she became the sole white resident on the block. As she usually did after work, she read the paper, made dinner and watched the news. She went to bed around 10:30 p.m.
According to court records, at some point during the night, she awoke and bolted upright in bed. There was a man standing in the doorway. She wasn't wearing her glasses but would later testify that from the dim light of an adjoining room she could make out he was black and wore a dark cap pulled down over his head. Standing with the light behind him, however, his face was shadowed.
Magin grew shocked, scared, asking him who he was, how he got in. But he said nothing. She pulled a sheet up to her chin, which he pulled back down before he removed his pants and shoes. As she lay there motionless, he pulled off her pajama pants and proceeded to rape her. Keeping her eyes tightly shut, Magin pleaded with him to leave her alone. Instead he made conversation, asking when she'd last had sex. She didn't say, but the truth was never. She had never married and was a virgin. Some time elapsed, and she begged the man to let her go to the bathroom. He did but followed, standing next to the mirror while she sat on the toilet. Then he raped her again.
Afterward, she told him she would give him all of her money, anything, if he would just please leave. Naked from the waist down, she walked into the dining room and handed him the $15 in her purse. He demanded jewelry and a gun. She told him she had neither. Angry, he ordered her to lie on the floor, face-down, and put her hands behind her back. He used two scarves from her bedroom to tie her wrists and ankles, and while she lay there bound, he walked through the house opening drawers, looking into cupboards and searching closets. After all the banging and shuffling subsided, she heard him leaving the house, hauling his plunder with him. Only after she heard a car driving away did she manage to untie her wrists, crawl to the phone and dial the police.
A few days later at around 9:30 a.m., Charles Chatman was walking to a bus stop in a neighborhood a few miles away from Magin's house. Since his mother died several years before and he'd never had a relationship with his father, Chatman lived with one of his older sisters, Claudette Smith, who had two children of her own. Chatman had dropped out of Roseville High School in the 10th grade and was serving a four-year probated sentence for burglarizing a house. He worked part-time helping his sister clean restaurants at night, but he'd left the house that morning determined to find another job, hopefully as a forklift operator.
As he and his friends neared the bus stop, a police cruiser approached and an officer got out and asked for identification. Seconds later, Chatman was handcuffed and on his way to jail. He assumed it had something to do with his probation. He learned later that a woman had picked his photograph out of a lineup and accused him of raping her. It seemed so preposterous, so untrue, that he figured he'd be out within days. But on January 29, several days after his arrest, he found himself standing in a live lineup with a group of 20-something black men. When he saw the middle-aged white woman on the other side of the glass, he recognized her. He'd seen her in the neighborhood he used to live in, before he moved in with his sister.
"I knew who she was, and I knew I hadn't done anything to her, so I wasn't worried about it," Chatman would say later. "I had no front teeth—I got them knocked out playing football—she should have been able to see that."
But when Magin picked Chatman's photo out of a lineup, she said she recognized him from the neighborhood. And, looking at him in the live lineup, she told investigators she was certain he was the man who raped her. Chatman was charged with aggravated rape and spent the next seven months in the county jail awaiting trial. He recalls seeing his defense attorney once during that time. At one point, in late summer of 1981, he became so frustrated that he called the attorney, Pat Robertson, collect. "I'm glad you called," Chatman recalls the lawyer saying. "Because the trial is tomorrow."
Robertson doesn't remember that conversation, but he does recall the case. "Could I have done anything else other than what I did? I don't know," he says. "Back in those days, a white lady takes the stand and points a finger and says, 'That's the guy,' he's dead meat."
Chatman also phoned his sister, who knew that he had worked in her cleaning business on the night of the rape and would swear to as much in court. He couldn't reach anyone else in the family, and besides, most of them would be working.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
But Chatman, as he has several times in recent weeks, explains that if anyone's responsible for the deterioration of their relationship, it's him. His niece and other women in his family sent him letters, but he withdrew from them and stopped responding.
"I always had this nagging thought—do they believe me?" he says. "Every time I saw them or talked to them, I'd try to read what they said, what was in their eyes. It's a real battle. Did they believe me? I don't know."
What he does know is that he is loved, which may help him through the difficult times that lie ahead. He says he wants to take auto mechanic classes and help the Innocence Project vet the claims of other convicts. Who better than him to detect when someone is lying or shading the truth?
He says he still has hard days, days when he thinks about all he has gone through and tries to make sense out of why it happened. But then he looks at his new apartment and his new furniture, and he steps outdoors, because he can. "I tell my family that I don't want to dwell on the past because they have been through a lot too—and God blessed us. So why should we rain on our own parade?"