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15th Dallas County Inmate Since ?01 Is Freed by DNA

Published: January 4, 2008

HOUSTON — After nearly 27 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, Charles Chatman walked free on Thursday, the 15th wrongfully convicted prisoner in Dallas County to be exonerated by DNA testing since 2001.

The innocence claims of seven other Dallas-area prisoners are pending, thanks in large part to a crime laboratory that, unlike others in Texas, has preserved evidence going back as long as three decades.

“I’m bitter toward what happened,” Mr. Chatman, 46, said by telephone after Judge John Creuzot of State District Court, who had championed a review of his case, ordered him released in a jubilant Dallas courtroom.

“He’s my fourth one,” said Judge Creuzot, who had invited Mr. Chatman to his courtroom on Wednesday to hear the news that a DNA sample recently taken from him did not match the profile from the rape victim’s vaginal swab of 1981.

The judge said that he had bought Mr. Chatman a T-bone steak for lunch but that he had to instruct him how to use a knife to cut the meat — he was only allowed spoons in prison — and later showed him his first cellular phone and helped him call his family.

Dressed in a new blue blazer, gray slacks, blue shirt and red tie bought by his lawyers, Mr. Chatman said he harbored no feelings of animosity toward the neighbor who had misidentified him as her rapist, earning him a 99-year sentence. But he said he felt he was victimized because he was black.

“I want to let the world know what happened,” he said, “I won’t shy away from that.”

Mr. Chatman, who had been locked up since age 20, said he had lost three chances for release by insisting to the Parole Board, “I never committed the crime.”

He said he wanted to work alongside his lawyers, Jeff Blackburn, Natalie Roetzel and Michelle Moore, to help others he had met in prison prove their innocence. The lawyers work with the Innocence Project of Texas, a consortium of university law clinics that has been using DNA evidence to exonerate people who were wrongly convicted.

The lawyers and District Attorney Craig Watkins of Dallas County credited Judge Creuzot for taking a personal role in the case. But they also said the unusual string of exonerations was made possible by the many specimens saved by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, the laboratory under contract to Dallas County, and the latest DNA testing by Orchid Cellmark, a leading genetic research organization.

“I think we’re no worse than any other part of the country,” Judge Creuzot, 50, said of the wrongful convictions. “We just keep the samples.”

Mr. Watkins, who made history in 2006 as the first African-American elected a district attorney in Texas, agreed.

“People look at Dallas County as an anomaly,” he said. “We’re not. We just have the DNA.” He said his office had reviewed 80 other claims of wrongful conviction and submitted seven cases for tests.

“This is not the end of it,” he said. “There’s a feeling of finally getting things right in the criminal justice system.”

Mr. Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, said Texas needed an Innocence Commission to officially investigate claims of wrongful conviction. A bill to create a commission died in the Texas Legislature last year.

Exonerations have been making news elsewhere in the country. Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group specializing in capital punishment issues, 126 prisoners in 26 states have been released from death row based on evidence of their innocence. Eight of the cases were in Texas, but Florida led with 22, followed by Illinois with 18, the center said.

The Innocence Project said Mr. Chatman appeared to be the longest-serving prisoner exonerated. In March 2005, a Cuban refugee, Luis Díaz-Martínez, was released as innocent after 26 years in prison for a rash of rapes in the Miami area.

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