Thursday, January 03, 2008

#15: Another DNA Exoneration in Dallas County

He was 20 years old when he was falsely accused of raping his neighbor and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Today, twenty seven years later, a Dallas court freed him based on DNA evidence that proved he was not guilty.

How would you feel?

"I'm bitter. I'm angry," [Charles] Chatman told The Associated Press during his last night in jail Wednesday. "But I'm not angry or bitter to the point where I want to hurt anyone or get revenge." ...
"I want this situation addressed," Chatman said. "But I don't have the anger that I used to." That's damn sure how I'd feel if more than half my life had been stolen from me by an overzealous justice system.

Chatman was wrongly identified in a photo lineup by the victim. Prosecutors say they don't know why his picture was originally included.

RELATED: See a summary of the other 14 DNA-based exonerations in Dallas since 2001. MORE: From Radley Balko.


rage judicata said...

This is a tough case. It's not like they manufactured evidence against him, they just didn't have the exculpatory evidence that far back.

Glad he's out, but his case is a bad example to try and change the system.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rage, you don't think it argues for improving eyewitness identification procedures? The victim identified him, she was just wrong.

To me this case is a classic argument for changing how police conduct photo arrays. At a minimum they need to use double blind procedures, and have a reason for including a suspect in a lineup.

Anonymous said...

Dallas County seems to be doing great things.

How about a post on what reforms the next Travis County DA should implement in order to become the state's preeminent role model for how DA offices should operate to prevent wrongful convictions. I know Travis does some things well, but I don't know what all they can improve or innovate on, besides leading the way for the rest of the state by not seeking the death penalty in any cases and instead use only life without parole, at least until the Legislature sets up a Death Penalty Study Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the whole system and then has a chance to pass whatever reforms the commission recommends.

We need a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions in Texas. The next Travis County DA can implement one locally by not seeking the death penalty.

rage judicata said...


Absolutely eyewitness ID's are a big problem. I just meant in the above post that this isn't the case of any active fraud on the part of the system (e.g., Houston PD's crime lab).

Single eyewitness accounts are some evidence, but are very unreliable. I think uncorroborated eyewitness testimony should never be the basis for a death sentence, and I think I've mentioned that on here before.

I'm a little offended that you don't remember my every post.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sometimes there's nobody to blame, but still a way to fix the problem. The cops did what they were trained to do. I didn't claim there was fraud, but this case to me cries out for reforms to photo lineups and a corroboration requirement. When a victim points wrongly at a defendant in court, it's not with malice, but that doesn't mean there can't be checks and balances installed to prevent such powerful testimony from improperly accusing the innocent.

Anonymous said...

Checks and balances in the Juidicial system are needed just as much now as they were 20 years ago. Just because everyone cries about how costly all this constitutional protection is doesn't mean it is a good thing that checks and balances are eliminated.

What did it cost to keep this guy in prison for 26 years? What will it cost to provide him with some restitution? How can money possibly make up for a life wasted because of a broken judicial system?

Now more than ever, care must be taken with incarceration. Our society cannot afford to destroy the lives of 20% of its citizens just to show the politicians are "tuf on crime"!

Let's have a little "tuf on protection" for innocent lives where folks are falsely accused!

rage judicata said...

I'm with you Grits. I was distinguishing between this and cases where the cops did something to hide evidence or create it out of thin air sometimes.

CC said...

"When a victim points wrongly at a defendant in court, it's not with malice, but that doesn't mean there can't be checks and balances installed to prevent such powerful testimony from improperly accusing the innocent."

Grits, do you mean like having a defense attorney suggest to the jurors that maybe the victim is just wrong in her id?

I agree w/rage here -- this was a tough case where everyone did the best they knew how.

And, let's not forget that Dallas PD has just started an extensive study of the latest eyewitness identification techniques to consider which will work best in the future for the department.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"do you mean like having a defense attorney suggest to the jurors that maybe the victim is just wrong in her id?"

No, I mean like requiring corroboration for eyewitness IDs, since we know they're often faulty and can result in convicting innocent people.

Also, though I'm glad DPD is participating in a study, we already know the failure to use double blind procedures and neutral lineup administrators contributes to biased IDs. Those changes needn't wait for the study, IMO - the evidence is already in.

The flaws in eyewitness ID procedures are pretty well known, but it's harder to convict if you can't just have an uncorroborated witness point and say "He did it," so prosecutors and police so far have opposed the most obvious fixes. I'm hopeful Watkins will reverse that trend. His stance on DNA testing is a good start, but a lot more needs to be done.

CC said...

Okay, the defense attorney comment was snarky, but we must look at the other side of this equation: eyewitness ids often prove absolutely correct. Sure, they have often been wrong, but there are a whole lot of cases where they were spot on. And in some of those cases, that id is the sole evidence, for example, because the defendant successfully isolated the victim.

I guess this all comes down to a basic problem: how do we prosecute the defendant I describe above if we require corroboration? Plus, I wonder how you could ever ferret out the malicious lying witness who, under the corroboration rules, might just manufacture the corroboration as well. It sounds "worst-case" but that's sort of the realm we are in here (the other side of "worst-case" being the innocent but incorrect eyewitness).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"there are a whole lot of cases where they were spot on. And in some of those cases, that id is the sole evidence,"

How do you know? You assume they're right, but when it's disputed you can't know for sure if, as in the case you describe, there's literally no other evidence. After all, I could point to cases where the victim was successfully isolated then later identified the wrong person!

Corroboration is a minimalist requirement to prevent wrongful convictions. One person's word is never "beyond a reasonable doubt" - that's not accusing anyone of malice, it's just that eyewitness testimony has proven to be quite fallible, not to mention people may have many motives for making accusations.

CC said...

Grits, I think we've isolated the logical possibilities when you have a sole eyewitness and are both equally correct: sometimes the sole eyewitness gets it right and sometimes he is wrong. Sometimes this is with malice and sometimes it is without.

Requiring corroboration, however, has 3 outcomes: it could end malicious eyewitnesses' incorrect identifications (but is unable to account for the possibility they can manufacture corroboration as well) or it can prevent an honest, correct eyewitness from bringing his assailant to justice. It could also stop innocent, incorrect eyewitnesses from helping put the wrong person behind bars.

The question is, then, do we want to let a few criminals go free or are we ok with convicting some innocent people? And that issue goes to more basic fundamentals of your quanitation of the success of a criminal justice system.

To the extent you raise the issue of evidentiary sufficiency in the criminal case, I think we could go on for years discussing that one, just as the CCA has (see Clewis up through 2007's slurry of sufficiency cases), so I'll leave that one alone.