Sometimes emotions run so deep they are difficult to put into words. Consequently, when County Progress visited with Charles Allen Chatman about the 26-plus years he spent in a Texas prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the interview was punctuated with long, thoughtful – and seemingly sad – pauses. After all, how do you describe complete disbelief, utter despair, and deep, dark hopelessness? Or what about a surreal sense of joy upon news of vindication, quickly tempered by a profound sense of sadness for all you’ve lost.
Perhaps the best way to glimpse the gamut of emotions is to review the chronology of Chatman’s existence beginning in 1981 when Chatman was 20 years old. According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, events unfolded as follows:
In the early morning hours of Jan. 15, 1981, a 52-year-old woman awoke in her Dallas apartment to find a male African-American intruder wearing a dark cap pulled down over his head. The man tore off the woman’s clothing and raped her on her bed. Before leaving her apartment, the man tied up the woman with a scarf and forced her to lie face down on the floor. He then stole $15 in cash and other items from the house, making several trips outside with the stolen goods. After he left the house, the victim heard a car door slam and a car being started and driven away. She called the police, and officers responded to the scene.
The victim was examined at a Dallas hospital where biological evidence was collected from her body. She told examiners that she had never had sexual intercourse before.
The Investigation and Identification
The victim described the attacker as 5-feet, 7-inches tall with black hair and facial hair. Although the victim usually wore glasses and was not wearing them during the crime, she testified that she was able to see the perpetrator’s features. She said that at one point during the attack, she “got enough of a glance of his full face” and then didn’t look directly at him again to avoid angering him. She did not mention anything about the attacker’s teeth, even after identifying Chatman who was missing his front teeth from a football accident.
On the day after the attack the victim viewed a photo lineup including six images of young African-American men. The lineup did not include Chatman, and the victim did not identify anyone as the perpetrator. She then viewed another photo lineup, this time including Chatman. She identified him as the perpetrator. Two weeks after the crime, she viewed a live, in-person lineup including Chatman, and again she identified him as the perpetrator. The lead investigator on the case conducted all three identification procedures.
When identifying Chatman at the second photo lineup, the victim told the administering officer that she believed she had seen Chatman in her neighborhood several times during the last few years. She did not tell officers at the time of the crime that she recognized the perpetrator.
Chatman was charged with aggravated rape and tried by a jury in Dallas on Aug. 12 and 13, 1981. Chatman has said he saw his court-appointed attorney only once before trial, and eventually called him after waiting seven months in jail without any news. The attorney told him that the trial was set for the next day.
The victim identified Chatman in the courtroom as the perpetrator of the crime, and a serologist testified regarding laboratory testing conducted at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences on evidence from the case.
The analyst testified that she found the presence of seminal fluid on a bed sheet collected from the victim’s house and sperm cells on the vaginal smear collected from the victim. She tested the seminal fluid on the sheet and found that it came from a type O secretor (a person whose blood type antigens are found in other bodily fluids, such as seminal fluid and saliva). She testified that Chatman is also a type O secretor, and that 40 percent of black men are type O secretors. While testimony about serological evidence can sometimes mislead juries into thinking that it can produce a definitive identification, the testing and analyst’s testimony in this case was entirely proper and based on verified scientific methods.
Chatman’s attorney challenged the validity of the identification and presented testimony that his client didn’t have a driver’s license and did not know how to drive. He also presented testimony that Chatman had been working at a maintenance company on the night of the crime; however, a log verifying his hours was not presented as evidence.
For Chatman, the most anguishing phase of the trial was the testimony of the victim. After she described the sordid details of her rape, the prosecutor said the following: "I would like for you to look around the courtroom today, and if you see the individual who did these things to you, will you point him out for the court?"
"Yes," she replied, staring at Chatman. "He's the black man sitting at the table wearing the cream-colored pullover sweater."
Chatman was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
It wasn’t until 2001, two full decades after his conviction, that Chatman began to hope he might be released. That year, Texas passed a law allowing inmates to seek DNA testing if it has the potential to prove their innocence. Chatman began filing motions even before the bill became law. He was given a court-appointed attorney, and in 2002 his petition for access to DNA testing was granted by District Court Judge John Creuzot. It took two years to locate the evidence. Unfortunately, analysts concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for testing.
Chatman’s new appointed attorney, Michelle Moore from the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, asked the lab to hold the evidence until new technology could be used to conduct the testing. Meanwhile, Chatman had a chance at parole in 2004 but refused to admit any involvement in the crime and was not paroled.
In 2007, Moore learned that the lab could conduct Y-STR testing – an advanced form of DNA testing that can determine a profile from a small sample – on the sperm cells collected from the bed sheet at the victim’s apartment. The risk was that this final test could have consumed the last of the biological evidence in the case. Chatman agreed to take the risk, however, and Creuzot paid for testing from his courtroom budget. The results of the Y-STR testing proved Chatman’s innocence, and he was released on Jan. 3, 2008.
Chatman's exoneration became official when all charges against him were dismissed on Feb. 26, 2008. He had served more than 26 years in prison – and seven months in jail – for a crime he didn’t commit. Charles Chatman was 20 years old when he was arrested in 1981, and he was 47 years old on the day of his release.
Each of these events left Chatman reeling, beginning with the faulty witness identification that led to his conviction. Chatman was on probation for an unrelated crime and was picked up for failure to pay probation fees – or so he thought. Chatman was told that as soon as he paid these fees he would be released.
“I paid, and they didn’t let me out,” Chatman recalled. “Suddenly, they called me out and arraigned me on a sexual assault case. I didn’t even know that a crime had been committed!”
During the lineup Chatman said he recognized the woman viewing the suspects, as they had been in the same neighborhood some 13 or 14 years earlier.
“I wasn’t worried,” Chatman said, “because I knew I hadn’t committed the crime.”
When Chatman was found guilty at trial, he was speechless. The verdict and the 99-year sentence that followed were simply unbelievable.
As Chatman sank into despair, he eventually realized he had no choice but to try and adjust to life in lockup. He sought out work and schooling to keep him distracted from his new, harsh reality. However, there were “a few times when things were just so overwhelming that the only relief I could find was to put my head down on my bunk and cry.” He asked God to take him through his nightmarish ordeal and to work out his future one day at a time.
Chatman served his time at the Coffield Unit and Michael Unit, both located in Tennessee Colony, Texas, and at the Allred Unit in Iowa Park, Texas.
As months grew into years and years stretched into decades, he maintained his innocence. In fact, Chatman shocked fellow inmates when he refused to take parole in 2001 and again in 2004. The parole board asked Chatman to recount his crime, and he flatly refused. This would have been an admission of guilt, Chatman explained, and he simply would not re-enter the world as a convicted sex offender.
"Life in prison for a sex crime is hell," he said. "I knew it would be worse on the outside when I tried to find a home or a job or face my family."
Chatman prefers not to dwell on the tedium of 27 behind bars, except to say what he missed most was his family, including his eight brothers and sisters. When Chatman learned of DNA testing, he allowed himself to acknowledge a small glimmer of hope as he pursued his case.
“I was blessed that Dallas County had preserved evidence in cases as far back as mine,” Chatman said.
On the morning of Jan. 2, 2008, jail guards escorted Chatman into a holding cell adjoining Creuzot's chambers. Chatman remembers holding his breath, afraid to believe he was on the cusp of freedom. Creuzot entered the chambers and wished Chatman a Happy New Year. Then he told him, “It wasn’t you.”
Once again, Chatman sat stunned, unable to speak.
“All I could do was breathe in and breathe out,” he recalled.
Creuzot gave Chatman a moment to collect himself and then offered Chatman his phone. However, Chatman didn’t know how to use the device. He would later learn it was “one of those fancy phones – a Blackberry.”
The judge’s 7-year-old son, Ethan, helped Chatman dial his aunt’s phone number. Later, when Creuzot ordered a Texas Land and Cattle steak to be delivered for Chatman, he ordered a hamburger for his son. Chatman ate his first meal as a free man with little Ethan.
Life on the Outside
Chatman had been in state custody since Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president in January 1981. As he adjusted to his new reality – life beyond bars – he realized he had a choice to make. Chatman, now 47 years old, could allow his pent-up anger and desire for revenge to control him, or he could direct his energies toward starting over.
He chose a new beginning.
Chatman currently resides in an apartment in Carrollton.
“Thankfully, I had somewhere to go on the day of my exoneration,” Chatman recalled. “I’ve been blessed to have family able and willing to support me as much as they can.” Even so, Chatman said, it takes hard work to reconnect after 27 years.
“Family relationships are still somewhat strained as we are trying to get to know one another,” Chatman explained.
As far as merging with the world, Chatman has been challenged at almost every turn. For example, upon his release he had no income and no identification. Once he secured paperwork, he began applying for jobs. However, employers were reluctant to trust him despite his exoneration. His record still indicated he had spent 27 years behind bars.
Chatman finally landed one job as a courier, which required a vehicle. With the gas money and car maintenance, he was barely breaking even. Chatman has been unable to catch up on rent, and he is currently some $400,000 in debt.
Prior to the 81st Texas Legislative Session, the State of Texas offered $50,000 for each year of imprisonment to those wrongfully convicted, assuming no lawsuit is filed. Chatman testified on behalf of House Bill 1736, known as the Tim Cole Act, which passed and will increase the payment to $80,000 per year. As of press time, some 20 months post-release, Chatman still had not received a payment. Furthermore, Chatman said he is still paying a lawyer to help ensure his record is fully cleared.
Chatman has never heard from the woman who rendered the false identification. However, he has communicated via e-mail with James Fry, the attorney who prosecuted Chatman. The exchange went well, Chatman said, and Fry expressed his regret over the misidentification. (See Fry’s column, page ?)
One of Chatman’s weekly challenges involves his continual encounter with new technologies and innovations that are commonplace to the rest of the world but still unfamiliar to Chatman; after all, he is literally decades behind the times. Take, for instance, self-checkout. The first time Chatman tried to scan his own items at Home Depot, he was unable to successfully complete the transaction. Unfortunately, the customers behind him had very little patience.
“If they only knew,” Chatman said. “If they only knew.”