Dallas County already held the distinction of the county with the largest number of DNA exonerations in the nation. Today, there is an additional non-capital exoneration.
Ralph Blumenthal reports, "15th Dallas County Inmate Since ’01 Is Freed by DNA," in today's New York Times.
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.
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.
The Dallas Morning News carries an AP dispatch, "DNA testing frees Dallas County inmate from 99-year sentence."
District Attorney Craig Watkins also attributes the exonerations to a past culture of overly aggressive prosecutors seeking convictions at any cost.
Mike Ware, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas County District Attorney's office, said he expects that number to increase.
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.
At the time the woman was assaulted, Chatman said he didn't have any front teeth; he had been certain that feature would set him apart from the real assailant.
"I'm not sure why he ended up on that photo spread to begin with," Ware said.
Chatman, who was convicted of aggravated sexual assault in 1981 and sentenced to 99 years in prison, credited his faith for not extinguishing his hope for an exoneration after more than a quarter-century in prison.