Life After DNA Exoneration

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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.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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