With his siblings cheering in the courtroom, Charles Chatman was released from state custody this afternoon after serving nearly 27 years in prison for a rape that DNA now proves he didn’t commit. He is the 15th person to be cleared by DNA evidence in Dallas – more than any other county in the nation.
Chatman was convicted of a 1981 rape after he was misidentified in a photo lineup. His attorney, Michelle Moore (who was co-counsel with the Innocence Project of Texas on the case), credited Texas judge John Creuzot with pushing for DNA testing in the case. Creuzot said he became convinced of Chatman’s innocence after presiding over two previous hearings in the case. After earlier tests proved inconclusive, Chatman recently agreed to Y-STR testing, an advanced form of DNA testing that can determine a profile from a small sample. The risk was that this final test could have consumed the last of the biological evidence in the case. It proved to be the right decision, however, as the profile proved that another man committed the rape for which Chatman was serving a 99-year sentence.
Chatman said he was denied parole three times during his 27 years in prison because he refused to admit guilt in a crime he didn't commit.
"Every time I'd go to parole, they'd want a description of the crime or my version of the crime," Chatman said. "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."
One of the biggest reasons for the large number of exonerations is the crime lab used by Dallas County, which accounts for about half the state's DNA cases. Unlike many jurisdictions, the lab used by police and prosecutors retains biological evidence, meaning DNA testing is a viable option for decades-old crimes.
District Attorney Craig Watkins also attributes the exonerations to a past culture of overly aggressive prosecutors seeking convictions at any cost. Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing about 450 cases in which convicts have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence.
"It is time we stop kidding ourselves in believing that what happened in Dallas is somehow unique," said Jeff Blackburn, the founder of the Innocence Project of Texas. "What happened in Dallas is common. This is Texas."
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. (Associated Press, 01/03/08)