How Do You Atone for 27 Years of Injust Inprisonment?

On Thursday, after spending 27 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, Charles Chatman walked free. The world -- or the world outside of jail, that is -- was a different place than that he had left nearly three decades ago. After only using spoons in prison, he had to relearn how to use a knife to cut his steak. The judge for his case even had to teach him how to use a cell phone -- a newfangled technology, for 47-year-old Chatman -- so he could call his family. Chatman is the 15th wrongfully convicted prisoner in Dallas County who has been exonerated by DNA evidence since 2001.

Chatman's story is one of those tug-on-your-heartstrings tales of a man whose life spun out of his control. When he was 20, he was convicted of raping a young women who lived five houses down the street. The women, who was in her 20s, picked Chatman from a police lineup. Serology tests further validated her claim, showing that Chatman's blood type matched that found at the crime scene, despite the fact that the blood type also matched that of 40% of black males. Chatman was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 99 years in prison based on a police lineup, unreliable blood evidence, and a jury that had only one black member. "I was convicted because a black man committed a crime against a white woman," Chatman said, as quoted in the Associated Press. "And I was available." Chatman had been working at the time of the crime -- a claim supported by his sister, who was his then-employer -- but the alibi didn't seem to matter.

During those 27 long years in prison, Chatman did have three chances at parole. The parole board always pressed him to confess, and when Chatman refused fabricate a story of his crime, the board refused to let him out. "Every time I'd go to parole, they'd want a description of the crime or my version of the crime," said Chatman. "I don't have a version of the crime. I never committed the crime. I never will admit to doing this crime that I know I didn't do."

Last year, when Chatman applied for DNA testing, he was told it would be risky. There was only one DNA sample available from the crime -- a small amount of DNA on a vaginal swab from the victim. Despite the fact that the single test would use all available DNA evidence and rule out the possibility of further tests, said his lawyer, Dallas County public defender Michelle Moore, Chatman decided to go ahead with the procedure. The DNA test showed that the rape had been committed by another man, and Chatman joyfully left the cell that had been his home for nearly three decades.

Chatman's exoneration, and the exoneration of other wrongfully convicted Dallas County prisoners, are largely the results of the the work of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Innocence Project. Since Watkins' election as the first African-American DA in Texas, he has worked to both reform the criminal justice system's methods of convicting criminals, and has utilized saved DNA in the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, a Dallas County laboratory, to overturn cases of wrongful convictions. The Times reports that Watkins' office, working with the Innocence Project, has reviewed 80 claims of wrongful conviction.


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