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Life After DNA Exoneration

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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.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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