In 1981,†Charles Chatman went to prison for a crime he did not commit. The 20 year old black man was accused of raping a 52 year old white woman in Texas. He waited seven months before communicating with his court appointed lawyer and receiving a trial. Two days after the trial began, Charles was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
When a 2001 law passed in Texas allowing convicted inmates to petition to have DNA evidence examined in cases where the technology didnít exist at the time of conviction, Charles finally saw an opportunity to clear his name. After seven years, several setbacks, two attorneys and a judge who wanted the system to work, Charles earned his freedom.
Charles served almost 27 years of his life in prison, the longest of any exonerated person.
Charles and the over 300 people who have been exonerated through this technology were lucky that DNA evidence existed in their cases. For many, itís harder to prove wrongful convictions due to inadequate representation, faulty eyewitness accounts or prosecutorial misconduct without such evidence to prove their innocence. It is more difficult for women, many of whom are accused of harming their own children.
Sabrina Butler was 17 years old and distraught over the death of her son at the time of her interrogation in 1989. She was interviewed by several different investigators, without an attorney or a family member present, in the days after he died. During her trial, her court appointed attorney called no witnesses. Less than a year later, she would be convicted of murdering her son. For the next six years, she spent 23 hours a day in confinement on Mississippiís death row.
It wasnít until 1995 during a new trial that evidence was presented by her attorney. Witnesses testified that Sabrina and neighbors had tried to revive her son and that the injuries he endured were from those attempts. She would also find out her son died of complications of undiagnosed pulmonary kidney disease, a hereditary condition that her daughter born years later also suffers from.
Sabrina is the only woman in the United States to be exonerated from death row.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989, 1159 people have been convicted of crimes and later exonerated. The average time served by these individuals was over ten years, more than 140 of them were on death row. Much is heard about the difficulties paroled prisoners have trying to reintegrate into society. What happens, however, if you have lost 5, 10 or 27 years of your life for a crime you didnít commit?
Since their ordeals, Charles and Sabrina have faced a labyrinth of challenges to get their lives on track. Charles reentered a world of new inventions like the cell phone and the Internet. He had little family and even fewer friends. He had to find a place to live, which he couldnít get unless he had been working for six months. He had to learn how to drive. Texas is one of 27 states that have a wrongfully convicted compensation system, but it would take years of legal wrangling to get the $50,000 per year of imprisonment he was entitled to.
Clearing a record is not automatic. In spite of their innocence, the wrongfully convicted are forced to endure the daunting task of spending years and thousands of dollars to clear their name. The conviction follows them, resulting in the inability to secure employment or housing. Sabrina learned that her arrest was still on her record when she underwent a criminal background check. She petitioned the state and had her record expunged in July 2012,†17 years after she had been exonerated. She received her first payment from Mississippiís compensation system one month earlier.
The psychological effects of wrongful convictions are similar to soldiers returning from war. They have been isolated, interrogated, wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Most end up impoverished and suffering from depression, alcoholism and drug addiction.
However, there are government sponsored support systems to help soldiers work through their trauma, which is not the case for the wrongfully convicted.
Even convicted criminals on parole have more support than the exonerated: they have a system in place upon release that provides support in finding housing, employment and mental health services.
Several organizations are taking on the difficult task of building a network of support. The Innocence Project, The Center for Wrongful Convictions and Life After Exoneration are just some of the nonprofits working tirelessly to help those facing this nightmare. These groups have been instrumental in passing legislation that has led to compensations systems, though the path is often mired in additional bureaucratic complications.
Charles and Sabrina have dedicated their lives to sharing their stories and working with organizations to help the wrongfully convicted. They know firsthand of the physical, financial and psychological support needed to reenter society as an innocent person who has been branded guilty.
They are the lucky ones. With more than two million people in prison in the US, how many more witnesses to innocence are there?
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