Friday, April 4, 2008

Freed, He's Adjusting, Helping

By Max Baker

Fort Worth, TX- The Star Telegram

At 47, Charles Chatman feels like a new member of society.

Released from prison in January after serving about 27 years for a crime he didn't commit, Chatman is learning to use a debit card and a cellphone. When he celebrated his release with a judge, Chatman had to be taught how to use a knife to cut his food: Knives aren't allowed in prison.

"I try to base my life on the faith I had to get out. I don't dwell on the past," Chatman said Wednesday at the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, where he spoke to students involved with the Innocence Project. "I try to live my life from this day on."

Chatman is the 15th inmate from Dallas County to be freed through DNA testing. He was convicted of raping a woman in 1981 and was sentenced to life in prison.

The Innocence Project of Texas, which includes students from Texas Wesleyan and other schools, helped secure Chatman's release. The luncheon at which Chatman spoke is an annual event.

Alibi goes unchecked

Wearing a small cross on a chain around his neck, the soft-spoken Chatman told the students and faculty about his almost three decades behind bars without a trace of bitterness or anger in his voice.

Chatman, 20 at the time he was convicted, said police initially picked up him up because he had fallen behind on probation fees resulting from a burglary conviction.

Chatman said he paid the fines, but before he could be released from jail he found himself in front of a judge being charged with the aggravated rape of a neighbor, a white woman he barely knew. Chatman said he was picked out because he was black.

Chatman said his court-appointed attorney showed very little interest in his case. He said the attorney didn't check out his alibi or mention in court that Chatman was missing his front teeth at the time of the assault.

"One day I called him, and he said that he was glad I called because I was going on trial the next day," Chatman said. "He was just going through the motions."

In prison, Chatman continued to profess his innocence. On at least three occasions, the parole board denied his release because he refused to apologize or admit to a crime.

"They wanted to know my version of the crime and I told them I didn't have a version, I didn't do it," Chatman said. "They thought I was being disrespectful."

A risky test

In 2001, Chatman read about the new state law making it easier to seek DNA tests. But there was little genetic matter left from the crime, and previous tests had been inconclusive. So the next test, one Chatman couldn't afford, would destroy what little material remained.

But the Innocence Project, which has been working with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to review questionable convictions, agreed to pay for the test as part of its case review.

"I got down to the last of it and it would consume it and I would be stuck," Chatman said. "The results is that I'm standing here today."

Chatman counts himself as lucky because he had a family to help him. He didn't get the standard $200 that inmates get upon release or access to programs to help them reintegrate into society.

Now, he wants to work with the Innocence Project to help others who have been released but have no one to help them.

"I'm dealing with it, but it's slow," Chatman said.

Funding for review team

On Tuesday, Chatman went with Watkins to ask Dallas County commissioners to fund a DNA evidence review team for two more years. The county agreed to pay $823,392 for the salaries of two attorneys, an investigator and a paralegal, said Jamille Bradfield, a spokeswoman for Watkins.

The Justice, Equality, Human Dignity and Tolerance Foundation also said it would provide $453,900 for DNA testing, contingent on the commission's funding, she said.

The Innocence Project is kicking in $36,000. The project is a consortium of innocence projects at Texas Wesleyan, Texas Tech University, the University of St. Thomas, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas.

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