Guilty. The pronouncement in court has far reaching effects. For Charles Chatman and Patrick Waller, it meant 27 and 16 years, respectively, in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Speaking to a room full of predominately criminal justice students at the University of North Texas at Dallas March 28, Chatman and Walker explained how that sentence changed their lives. They are two of 27 individuals who have been exonerated in Dallas County due to DNA testing in recent years.
Chatman said he is driven to help other exonerees since he was given very little help when he was first freed from prison. After 27 years, Dallas was completely different than when he went to prison as a 21-year-old. He described the hardships that exonerees go through because they do not get the support given to parolees.
Chatman said he was lucky to have had some family alive who were able to provide him a place to live for awhile. Other exonerees’ family and friends died during their time in prison. Chatman was released three years ago and is still trying to put his life back together. Even though it was proven that he was not guilty and it was expunged from his record, he still cannot get hired for a job because of the 27 year gap in his employment history.
Chatman urged the criminal justice students to have integrity in their careers. The district attorney at the time he was convicted boasted of having a 99 percent conviction rate. Chatman believes the DA was more concerned with his conviction rate and political career than with the truth. Chatman said the future is in the hands of criminal justice students, and he hopes that no other innocent person will go to prison.
In a riveting speech, Waller described his time in prison and the prison culture, even showing scars from when he was stabbed four times by prison gang members. He was angry for a long time, but he said he rejoices in his ability to do anything he wants to do now that he is out of prison. Dressed in a bright red shirt, sunglasses, gold rings and gold chains, Waller said he takes joy in being able to dress flamboyantly. He dresses in that style, he said, to make sure he is never falsely identified again.
Dallas County Public Defender Michelle Moore was instrumental in getting Chatman and Walker exonerated. She described their attempts to use new DNA testing, including Chatman having one chance because the lone DNA sample was the size of a pen head that could not be used twice. In answer to a student’s question, Moore said that in many cases there is no DNA sample to be tested or it is so small that it is difficult to test. Chatman chose to wait two years for new testing technology because of the size of his case’s DNA sample.
Chatman and other exonerees filed suit against the State of Texas, but the case was dropped when Texas passed a law to compensate those who are falsely convicted. Chatman, Waller and the other exonerees were given a settlement, which included a lump sum and an annuity which started one year after the lump sum was paid. That settlement has given them the opportunity to help other exonerees as they are freed before they receive their settlements.
Chatman and other exonerees will be featured on the Black Entertainment Television network next fall in a program titled “Vindicated.” Their stories also are published in the book, “Tested, How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope” written by former Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Dorothy Budd and her daughter Peyton Budd. The book profiles 12 of the men exonerated in Dallas County.
For more information about similar cases, go to the Innocence Project Web site at www.innocenceproject.org.