January 4, 2008 in Nation/World

DNA exonerates man after 26 years in prison

Jeff Carlton Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Defense attorney Jeff Blackburn, left, raises the arm of Charles Chatman outside court Thursday in Dallas after a judge released Chatman and recommended his rape conviction be overturned. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

DALLAS – Three times during his nearly 27 years in prison, Charles Chatman went before a parole board and refused to admit he was a rapist. His steadfastness was vindicated Thursday, when a judge released him because of new DNA evidence showing he indeed wasn’t.

The release of Chatman, 47, added to Dallas County’s nationally unmatched number of wrongfully convicted inmates.

“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.”

District Judge John Creuzot, whom defense lawyers credited with shepherding Chatman’s case for exoneration through the legal system, recommended that Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals find Chatman not guilty. With several relatives dabbing at their eyes with tissues and cheering, Chatman was released.

“I really can’t tell you how I feel,” said his aunt, Ethel Bradley. “But I can tell you it is a different feeling than I have had in a long time, just to be holding his own hand.”

Before the crime is officially cleared from Chatman’s record, the appeals court must accept the recommendation or the governor must grant a pardon. Either step is considered a formality after Creuzot’s ruling.

Chatman became the 15th inmate from Dallas County since 2001 to be freed by DNA testing.

Dallas has freed more inmates after DNA testing than any other county nationwide, said Natalie Roetzel of the Innocence Project of Texas.

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.

Chatman was 20 when the victim, a young woman in her 20s, picked him from a lineup. Chatman said he lived five houses down from the victim for 13 years but never knew her.

She identified him in court as the attacker, and serology tests showed that the type of blood found at the crime scene matched that of Chatman – along with 40 percent of other black males.

Chatman said he was working at the time of the assault, an alibi supported by his sister, who was also his employer. Nevertheless, Chatman was convicted of aggravated sexual assault in 1981 and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

“I was convicted because a black man committed a crime against a white woman,” Chatman said. “And I was available.”

Chatman said he wants to work with the Innocence Project of Texas to support other people exonerated or wrongly convicted.

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