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Justin Chapman

Other Arson Exonerations with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
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Shortly after midnight on June 20, 2006, while 27-year-old Justin Chapman and his girlfriend were playing video games with friends, a man banged on the door of their duplex in Bremen, Georgia. It was William Chieves, angry and very drunk, who started a fight with Chapman which ended with Chapman pistol-whipping Chieves.

Police arrived and arrested Chieves, but not before Chieves was able to call his brother on his cellphone and say: “Let’s tell these people what we do to people who mess with us Chieves.”

Chapman, concerned that Chieves’ family members might show up to retaliate, took his girlfriend and their two children to the home their friends, who lived about 10 minutes away.

About 3 a.m., firefighters were called to Chapman’s duplex, which was fully engulfed in flames. The fire spread to the adjoining duplex and despite firefighters’ efforts, the resident, 79-year-old Alice Jackson, perished of smoke inhalation. Firefighters concluded gasoline had been poured on the front door and ignited.

The following day, Chapman was arrested and charged with arson and murder.

Chapman went to trial in Haralson County Superior Court in June 2007. The prosecution’s key witness was Joseph White, who had been awaiting trial on child molestation charges in the Haralson County Jail when Chapman was arrested. White testified that Chapman admitted setting the fire because his landlady had asked them to move out of the duplex, saying their family of four was too large for the one-bedroom residence. White, who by that time had been acquitted at trial of the molestation charges, denied that he had asked the prosecution for any consideration on his case in return for his testimony.

A neighbor, Gary Stroup, who lived with his sister one street over from Chapman, testified that he saw someone limping across the street a block away just before flames erupted. Chapman walked with a limp because of a serious on-the-job foot injury suffered years earlier. Stroup admitted that right after the fire he told police that he could not identify the person he saw. Nonetheless, he told the jury, “I believe it was Mr. Chapman.”

The landlady testified that she had asked Chapman to move out and that he had failed to make his weekly rent payment prior to the fire.

The defense presented testimony from Chapman’s friends about the fight with Chieves and that Chapman and his family came to stay with them after Chieves was arrested.

The prosecution argued that after Chapman’s family went to bed at the friends’ home, he drove back to the duplex and set the fire.

On June 29, 2007, the jury convicted Chapman of murder and arson. He was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole after 30 years.

Soon after, Stroup and White split a $10,000 reward paid by Georgia Arson Control, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing arson.

Chapman was appointed a lawyer to handle his appeal. The lawyer filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied, even though the prosecution conceded that after White finished his testimony a statement, describing a police interview with White was admitted in evidence, in violation of Chapman’s right to cross-examine White about the statement. The judge refused to grant a new trial, ruling that the error did not deny Chapman a constitutionally fair trial.

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld Chapman’s convictions in 2012. Not long after, Chapman’s trial defense attorney, assistant public defender Jan Hankins, who remained convinced of Chapman’s innocence, persuaded lawyers from the Atlanta law firm of Bondurant Mixon to re-examine the case.

In 2013, the law firm filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition stated that the defense had discovered a video of an interview of White, the jailhouse informant, conducted by the trial prosecutor. During the interview, White requested favorable treatment on his pending case and the prosecutor said he would see what he could do.

The defense also discovered that the prosecution had concealed a portion of a letter written by White from jail in which he said he was going to remain quiet for a while about his claim that Chapman had confessed to setting the fire—in contradiction to White’s trial testimony that as soon as he heard Chapman’s admission, he informed authorities. The prosecution argued to the jury that White’s prompt action showed he was only trying to do the right thing.

The defense also presented evidence that the prosecution had interviewed another jail inmate, William Liner Jr., who said that Chapman had never confessed. That inmate’s statement was not disclosed to Chapman’s defense lawyer prior to trial.

In December 2013, an evidentiary hearing was held on the petition. Liner testified that he told the prosecution that Chapman never confessed to White.

At the hearing, Peggy Lewis, the sister of Gary Stroup, testified that she was sitting next to her brother at the time he claimed to have seen Chapman leaving the block just before fire broke out. Lewis, who had never been interviewed by the defense or prosecution, said that Stroup had consumed a 12-pack of beer and was intoxicated. She said the man was running—not limping—and that it was too dark to tell who it was.

A neighbor testified that Stroup had confided to her that he was going to be a witness because he wanted to get the reward.

The defense also presented evidence that one month before the fire, Chieves—the man who fought with Chapman and who had called his brother in apparent attempt to get help—had set fire to another man’s house to get revenge for the man beating up a friend of Chieves’.

In March 2014, the writ was granted, Chapman’s convictions were vacated and he was granted a new trial because of the failure of the prosecution to disclose the evidence impeaching White.

In May 2015, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the order granting a new trial and Chapman was released on bond.

On June 22, 2016, the Haralson County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/12/2016
State:Georgia
County:Haralson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:27
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No