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Charles Chatman

Other Conviction Integrity Unit DNA Cases
After serving more than 26 years in Texas prisons for a crime he didn't commit, Charles Chatman was exonerated based on DNA testing and freed in 2008.

In the early morning of January 4, 1981, a 52-year-old woman in Dallas, Texas, awoke to find a Black male in her apartment. He wore a dark cap pulled down over his head. The woman said the man tore off her clothing and raped her on her bed. Before leaving the apartment, the man tied up the woman with a scarf and forced her to lie face down on the floor. He then stole $15 and several other items from the home, making several trips outside with the stolen goods. After he left, the victim heard a car door slam and a car being started and driven away. She called the police, and officers responded to the scene.

The victim was examined at a Dallas hospital, where healthcare workers collected biological evidence from her body. She told her examiners that she had never had sexual intercourse before.

The victim, who was white, described the attacker as 5 feet 7 inches tall with black hair and facial hair. Although the victim usually wore glasses and was not wearing them during the attack, she testified that she was able to see the perpetrator’s features. She said that at one point during the attack, she “got enough of a glance of his full face” and then didn’t look directly at him again to avoid angering him.

On the day after the attack, the victim viewed a photo lineup including six images of young Black men. The lineup did not include Chatman, and the victim did not identify anyone as the perpetrator. She then viewed another photo lineup, this time including Chatman, who was on probation for burglary. She identified him as the perpetrator. Two weeks after the crime, she viewed a live in-person lineup including Chatman and again she identified him as the perpetrator. The lead investigator on the case conducted all three identification procedures.

When identifying Chatman at the second photo lineup, the victim told the administering officer that she believed she had seen Chatman in her neighborhood several times over the last few years. (Chatman lived several houses away from the victim, and he would later say he recognized the victim by sight.) She had not told officers at the time of the crime that she recognized the perpetrator. In addition, she had not mentioned anything about the assailant’s mouth; Chatman, then 20 years old, was missing two front teeth due to a football injury.

Chatman was charged with aggravated rape and tried by a jury in Dallas County Criminal District Court on August 12 and 13, 1981. Chatman would later say that he saw his attorney only once before trial, and eventually called him after waiting seven months in jail without any news. He said the attorney told him at that point that the trial was set for the next day.

The victim identified Chatman in the courtroom as the man who attacked her, and a serologist testified about laboratory testing conducted at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences on evidence from the case.

The analyst testified that she found the presence of seminal fluid on a bed sheet collected from the victim's house and sperm cells on the vaginal smear collected from the victim. She tested the seminal fluid on the sheet and found that it came from a type O secretor (a person whose blood type antigens are found in other bodily fluids, such as seminal fluid and saliva, although not in sperm). She testified that Chatman was also a type O secretor, and that 40% of black men are type O secretors.

The testimony about the semen on the sheet was technically accurate, but it was also incomplete, and didn't cover important issues, such as what tests were run. It also contained little information about the vaginal swab, such as whether it contained blood or not and whether it was tested for any genetic markers.

Chatman testified and said he was working as a janitor at the time of the attack. His sister, who was also his employer, also testified to support that alibi, although a book recording Chatman’s hours was not presented as evidence. Chatman's attorney challenged the validity of the identification and presented testimony that Chatman didn't have a driver's license and did not know how to drive.

Chatman was convicted on August 13, 1981, and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

It wasn't until 2001 that Chatman began to hope he might be released. That year, Texas passed a law allowing inmates to seek DNA testing if it had the potential to prove their innocence. Chatman began filing motions even before the bill became law. He was given a court-appointed attorney, and in 2002 Judge John Creuzot granted his petition for access to DNA testing. It took two years to locate the evidence, and then Chatman hit another roadblock when analysts said that there wasn't sufficient evidence for testing.

Chatman's attorney, Michelle Moore, asked the lab to hold the evidence until new technology could be used to conduct the testing. Meanwhile, Chatman had a chance at parole in 2004 but refused to admit any involvement in the crime and was not paroled.

In 2007, Moore learned that the lab could conduct Y-STR testing — an advanced form of DNA testing that can determine a profile from a small sample — on the sperm cells collected from the bed sheet at the victim's apartment. The risk was that this final test could have consumed the remainder of the biological evidence in the case. Chatman agreed to take the risk, however, and Judge Creuzot paid for testing from his courtroom budget. The results of the Y-STR testing identified another man as the contributor to the sample, and Chatman was released on January 3, 2008.

Chatman's exoneration became official when the charge against him was dismissed on February 26, 2008.

During his incarceration, Chatman was denied parole three times because he refused to admit guilt. After his release, he said: “Every time I'd go to parole, they'd want a description of the crime or my version of the crime. 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.”

In 2009, Chapman received a lump sum of $2,160,000 in state compensation and a monthly annuity of $11,720.

– Simon Cole

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 11/16/2014
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1981
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes