When I prosecuted Charles Chatman for aggravated rape in 1981, I was certain I had the right man. His case was one of my first important felony cases as a Dallas County assistant district attorney. Chatman was convicted in a court of law by a jury of his peers. They, like me, were convinced of his guilt.
Nearly 27 years later, DNA proved me – and the criminal justice system – wrong. Chatman was freed from prison in January after DNA testing proved him innocent. He spent nearly three decades behind bars for a crime he did not commit – a stark reminder that our justice system is not immune from error. No reasonable person can question this simple truth.
I am proud of having been a prosecutor; it is honorable work. In fact, I still have a portrait of former Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade in my law office. He was a good man, and he gave me a chance to be a trial lawyer. However, my unknowing involvement in prosecuting an innocent man has been a troubling experience.
Chatman's story is tragically not unique. The staggering number of exonerations attest to just how easily the innocent can be convicted. Nationally, 225 people have been released from prison after DNA testing proved their innocence. Seventeen of them had been sentenced to death. Twenty DNA exonerations were from Dallas County alone, the most of any U.S. jurisdiction. The vast majority of those exonerated in Dallas County would still be in prison but for the fact Dallas preserved its DNA evidence.
As with so many of these cases, Chatman was convicted on the testimony of one eyewitness. Witness misidentification is one of the greatest causes of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75 percent of cases with DNA exonerations.
The fault in Chatman's case, however, lies not with the victim, who honestly believed she had identified the right man. Instead, it lies in part with the flawed witness identification procedures used by law enforcement agencies. Research has shown that relatively small changes can greatly improve witness accuracy, changes we urgently need to implement.
Witness identification is not the only contributor to wrongful convictions. Far from it. Politicians – a category that includes elected officials, district attorneys and judges – need to be less concerned about remaining in office and more concerned with determining the truth. More effort needs to be given to see that court-appointed attorneys have adequate compensation and investigation funds. Until these issues are addressed and reforms put in place, the number of innocent men and women sent to prison will continue to rise.
Chatman's case was not a capital crime, but the problems that led to his wrongful conviction raise the question: How can we continue carrying out executions in Texas when we know the system is so prone to error?
For years, Texas has led the nation in the number of executions. Why don't we now strive to lead the nation in a new direction: reforming a justice system in urgent need of reform?
For years I supported capital punishment, but I have come to believe that our criminal justice system is incapable of adequately distinguishing between the innocent and guilty. It is reprehensible and immoral to gamble with life and death.
I am no bleeding heart. I have been a Republican for over 30 years. I started my career as a supporter of removing violent people from society for as long as possible, and I still believe that to be appropriate.
But I also believe that the government should be held to the strictest burden before it deprives a citizen of his freedom. It is not too much to ask that we not convict and execute innocent people in our quest to enforce the law. Let's get this system fixed.
James A. Fry was a Dallas County assistant district attorney from 1980 to 1982 and currently practices family law in Sherman. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
(Article posted on The Dallas Morning News on May 14th, 2009)