How Do You Compensate 27 Years of Injust Inprisonment?
On Thursday, after spending 27 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, Charles Chatman walked free. The world -- or the world outside of jail, that is -- was a different place than that he had left nearly three decades ago. After only using spoons in prison, he had to relearn how to use a knife to cut his steak. The judge for his case even had to teach him how to use a cell phone -- a newfangled technology, for 47-year-old Chatman -- so he could call his family. Chatman is the 15th wrongfully convicted prisoner in Dallas County who has been exonerated by DNA evidence since 2001.
Chatman's story is one of those tug-on-your-heartstrings tales of a man whose life spun out of his control. When he was 20, he was convicted of raping a young women who lived five houses down the street. The women, who was in her 20s, picked Chatman from a police lineup. Serology tests further validated her claim, showing that Chatman's blood type matched that found at the crime scene, despite the fact that the blood type also matched that of 40% of black males. Chatman was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 99 years in prison based on a police lineup, unreliable blood evidence, and a jury that had only one black member. "I was convicted because a black man committed a crime against a white woman," Chatman said, as quoted in the Associated Press. "And I was available." Chatman had been working at the time of the crime -- a claim supported by his sister, who was his then-employer -- but the alibi didn't seem to matter.
During those 27 long years in prison, Chatman did have three chances at parole. The parole board always pressed him to confess, and when Chatman refused fabricate a story of his crime, the board refused to let him out. "Every time I'd go to parole, they'd want a description of the crime or my version of the crime," said Chatman. "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."
Last year, when Chatman applied for DNA testing, he was told it would be risky. There was only one DNA sample available from the crime -- a small amount of DNA on a vaginal swab from the victim. Despite the fact that the single test would use all available DNA evidence and rule out the possibility of further tests, said his lawyer, Dallas County public defender Michelle Moore, Chatman decided to go ahead with the procedure. The DNA test showed that the rape had been committed by another man, and Chatman joyfully left the cell that had been his home for nearly three decades.
Chatman's exoneration, and the exoneration of other wrongfully convicted Dallas County prisoners, are largely the results of the the work of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Innocence Project. Since Watkins' election as the first African-American DA in Texas, he has worked to both reform the criminal justice system's methods of convicting criminals, and has utilized saved DNA in the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, a Dallas County laboratory, to overturn cases of wrongful convictions. The Times reports that Watkins' office, working with the Innocence Project, has reviewed 80 claims of wrongful conviction.
This past October, Watkins was the featured speaker at DMI's Marketplace of Ideas event on preventing wrongful convictions and exonerating the innocent. He spoke on how his goal wasn't just to get innocent people out of prison, but to reform the system to both prevent crime and prevent innocent convictions in the first place. "Maybe we should put our money on the front end instead of the back end," he said, noting that "we spend roughly $34 a day to imprison an inmate, and only $8 a day to educate our children." He says, that by talking about the "economic side of the criminal justice system," he's gotten even staunch conservatives to agree with his policies.
But back to Chatman. Now that Chatman's been exonerated, he'll disappear from the news (not that he got much coverage anyway, having been freed on the day of the Iowa caucuses). But Chatman's struggle is far from over. If he wants any kind of financial compensation for his decades spent in prison, he'll have to fight a system that makes it anything but easy for wrongly convicted people to obtain compensation for their time in jail. "The majority of people exonerated after proving their innocence have not been compensated for the injustice they suffered and the time they spent incarcerated," says the Innocence Project. And that doesn't even take into account other services that innocent ex-convicts desperately need for re-entry into society, like job training, health and legal services, and education. After all, if you've spent the majority of your adult life in prison (from age 20 to 47, anyway), how could you possibly have any employable skills or the abilities to procure health or legal services on your own?
The current system for compensation is pretty much a political morass. In some states, former inmates must file civil lawsuits to receive compensation. Currently, only 22 states plus D.C. have compensation statutes. In Texas, for example, "A wrongfully convicted person is entitled to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration (and $100,000 per year if that person was sentenced to death), compensation for child support payments, and one year of counseling," according to the Innocence Project. But other states have less clear cut policies. In New York, for example, according to the Innocence Project, "If the wrongfully convicted person 'did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction' and files a claim within two years of his pardon of innocence, he shall receive 'damages in such sum of money as the court determines will fairly and reasonably compensate him.'" That means that if innocent people plead guilty so as to get parole (like Chatman could have done) they can never receive any kind of compensation.
And then there are those 28 states that have no compensation policies at all, where many ex-inmates, after leaving jail, actually receive less of a safety net than that offered to actual guilty prisoners. In August of 2007, the Times researched the compensation claims of 206 people that have been exonerated by DNA evidence. They concluded,
"At least 79 — nearly 40 percent — got no money for their years in prison. Half of those have federal lawsuits or state claims pending. More than half of those who did receive compensation waited two years or longer after exoneration for the first payment. Few of those who were interviewed received any government services after their release. Indeed, despite being imprisoned for an average of 12 years, they typically left prison with less help — prerelease counseling, job training, substance-abuse treatment, housing assistance and other services — than some states offer to paroled prisoners."
The efforts of DA Watkins, the Innocence Project, and others who have worked to get more than 200 innocent people out of jail are nothing short of amazing. But, in creating this new population of innocent ex-convicts, they have generated a need not only for fair, equitable, and nationally consistent compensation laws, but for a guaranteed social safety net that will help the wrongfully incarcerated to reintegrate into society. After all, if people like Chatman need to learn how to use cell phones and knives, might we expect they'll need job training, health insurance, and counseling, too?
Now out of jail, Chatman says he plans to help other innocent prisoners who are currently incarcerated. "I believe that there are hundreds, and I know of two or three personally that very well could be sitting in this seat if they had the support and they had the backing that I have," Chatman said. "My number one interest is trying to help people who have been in the situation I am in."