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?"