One of the longest prison sentences ever served by an innocent person was done by Charles Chatman of Dallas County Texas. Chatman, a black man, was wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in 1981 and sentenced to 99 years in prison. He served nearly 27 years before he was exonerated in 2008. Although he went before the parole board multiple times during his sentence, he was never granted parole because he never admitted guilt.
Chatman’s case is not uncommon in the pool of wrongful convictions. A white rape victim misidentified a black man as her perpetrator, and a nearly all-white jury decided his guilt based mostly on the victim’s testimony. Chatman, who was on probation for another crime at the time of his conviction, was absolutely stunned. He never thought he would be found guilty, and when he was, his anger ballooned. He knew his conviction was racially charged.
“I was angry while I was incarcerated for a long time,” Chatman said in an interview with WUNC at the Innocence Network Conference in April. He directed his anger towards white people and said that for a time in prison, “I would not associate with anybody other than black people.”
But like many other wrongfully convicted inmates, he came to the conclusion that he had to let his anger go.
“Thank God one day I realized that it was hurting me, more than it was hurting anybody else,” Chatman said. “They had my body incarcerated; I didn’t have to give them my mind, too. And when I realized that, that’s when I started feeling better.”
Chatman was exonerated in 2008, when DNA testing technology evolved to a point that allowed the tiny amount of DNA collected in the victim’s rape kit to be tested. It cleared Chatman of any suspicion of guilt, and his conviction was overturned. Chatman was free, but lost.
“Once we leave out of that courtroom, once the fanfare and all that is over with—what are we do to then? What are we to do the next day?” Chatman said, speaking for himself and fellow exonerees. “We knew yesterday that we had a bed –a bunk—to go to sleep. Once we get out, we don’t even know where we’re gonna sleep that night or what we’re gonna wear, what we’re gonna eat, because societies have not set up any means for an exoneree when they get out.”
Unlike parolees, exonerees receive no immediate aid from the government when they leave prison. Chatman’s family members assisted him with basic tasks like getting a Social Security Card, a driver’s license, and a cell phone. They helped him search for an apartment. But despite his family’s help, Chatman still struggled to find a job. His 27-year employment gap was a major deterrent for potential employers.
“If I was a guilty person and got out on parole, society has all kind of reintegration programs for a parolee,” Chatman said. “We have none of that.” The lack of help he received from the government led him to want to help other exonerees.
Chatman now spends his free time helping the House of Renewed Hope, an organization started by exoneree Christopher Scott that works to free other innocent people from prison. Chatman is part of the investigation team, a group of exonerees that seeks to get wrongfully convicted people access to DNA tests and legal aid. They also help exonerees reintegrate into society when they leave prison.
“A guy comes out [of prison] in Texas, we make sure he has something to eat. We make sure he has a place to sleep that night,” Chatman says. “Because all of us don’t have families to go back to. You done been incarcerated 20, 30 years, you done lost major family members—mothers, fathers—you have nowhere to go. We don’t want the exonerees of Texas to have to do that. We don’t want the exonerees nowhere to have to do that.”
House of Renewed Hope has released a book called MAN TO MAN: Stories, Encouragement, and Advice for Newly Released Exonerees, Written by Exonerees. The text is free for exonerees and people waiting to be exonerated. The organization is currently working on the case of Jimmy Lee Osteen, a man serving a 75-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery.