Longform

Life After DNA Exoneration

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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."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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