Life After DNA Exoneration

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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!"

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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