Life After DNA Exoneration

Once the cheers of vindication fade, life is hard for the newly-freed.

When Charles Chatman is alone, he finds comfort in his Bible.  His favorite verse is Psalm 27, which he likes to read to himself. 

"I needed the motivation I got when I first read this scripture," Chatman said. "It was just a whole new perception opening up to me. I got that from the first time I read it, to just now. I feel the same. I feel the protection of God around me."

Chatman says the verse, which speaks of salvation, and the failure of enemies, reminds him of his own experience.

He believes it was racism that led to the most significant event of his life: A conviction for a rape he did not commit. It was faith and strength, he said, that carried him through to the second-most important event: the day he walked out of court a free man after spending nearly 27 years in prison.

Chatman was freed after DNA testing proved that he did not commit the crime. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins establised a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2007, which oversees the post-conviction review of more than 400 DNA cases in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas. The special division was the first of its kind in the United States.

Chatman was 21 years old in 1981 when he was wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to 99 years in prison.  He was 47 when he was released in early 2008. He has lived more of his life in prison, than out.

Though DNA proved his innocence, Chatman says he still feels shackled at times. He has been unsuccessful at finding jobs. He takes newspaper clippings with him to interviews to explain where he's been for more than a quarter of a century.

Though people seem sympathetic to his situation, they still won't hire him.

"They apologize because they can't give me the job," Chatman said. "I don't have a work history, I don't have work references, and anything that I knew how to do before I went in, I haven't been able to do in 27 years."

Dr. John Stickels, a UT Arlington professor and a board member for the Innocence Project of Texas, says Chatman's experience is typical; nothing is set up to help the exonerated re-enter society.

"If you are released on parole you get all sorts of help from the governement," Stickels said. "Programs, job assistance, education, training. But for the exoneree, there's just no help."

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