Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Guest Shot: Duke lacrosse team exoneration catalyst for change

by Mary Mitchell, Chicago Sun Times
[originally published at]

Despite the divisive nature of the Duke lacrosse rape case, some good can come of it.

The flawed case exposed the worst elements of the criminal justice system and showed how easily an innocent person can be railroaded into jail.

Most often, it is African Americans and other people of color who find themselves in this predicament. That has made it too easy for some of us to dismiss their complaints of being railroaded.

But the Duke defendants were young, white males from affluent families, battling a system that sometimes runs like a car without brakes.

"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed," Reade Seligmann said at a news conference last week.

In denouncing the rape prosecution as a "rush to judgment," the attorney general in North Carolina dropped all charges against Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty.

"If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can't imagine what they'd do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves," Seligmann said.

"So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it."

Why no DNA evidence? Still, the Duke defendants were luckier than most defendants who face similar situations.

Five years ago, I raised questions about the charges leveled against Carl Chatman, a homeless man accused of raping a woman in the Daley Center.

Why was there no DNA evidence to link Chatman to the crime? How did Chatman manage to slip into the Daley Center and sleep under a bench all night? Why did a traffic cop pick the indigent Chatman out on the street and take him back to the scene of the crime? And why would Chatman, who is mentally ill, dictate a detailed confession to a detective?

But two years later, a jury took a half hour to convict Chatman of raping the clerk in her office. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

"It was the fact that the victim was detailed in her description of what happened, and the defendant had a written, signed, nine-page statement with all the details," a juror told reporters after the conviction.

The woman and her husband have filed civil suits against Cook County, the Public Building Commission, Aargus Security Systems, the Cook County sheriff, ANR Janitorial Service, MB Beitler Management Corp. and Carl Chatman.

Apparently, those suits have led lawyers to do a little more digging.

Filed civil suits then, tooIt turns out that in 1979, the Daley Center victim was also raped early in the morning (7 a.m.) at another downtown office building -- allegedly in a washroom by a janitor.

The victim identified a Polish immigrant from a photograph as the man who raped her. Because the suspect spoke very little English, he was given an interpreter and was subsequently arrested.

The accused fled the country before going to trial. But he left a letter behind with his sister, telling her he had no idea what the charges were all about but that the accusation had ruined his life.

The Daley Center victim filed civil suits in that case as well, naming the owners of the office building, the maintenance service, security company and the alleged rapist.

As incredible as it may sound, the information about the first rape and resulting lawsuits was not brought up during Chatman's trial.

Lawyers representing Chatman are now attempting to get him a new trial based on ineffective representation.

"The evidence will show the injustice of this case," said Russell Ainsworth of Lovey & Lovey, lawyers who are representing Chatman in the civil case.

"You have a 50-year-old veteran who is homeless with mental illness who is taken advantage of by this alleged victim solely to make a dime off the taxpayers of Cook County," he said.

Because rape victims are given a shield of protection, I am not identifying the woman. But I did attempt to contact her attorney, Joe Powers.

Maybe it is just a tragic coincidence that this woman was raped twice under similar circumstances. But I'm concerned that Chatman was simply another example of a "rush to judgment" who did not have the means to defend himself.

Hopefully, the Duke lacrosse case has made more of us sensitive to the plight of people like Chatman.


Wrongfully Accused! said...

It is eerie, the similarities that these wrongfully accused stories have. Phase 1, 2 and 3 of the process to railroad innocent people into convictions by a jury that knows almost nothing of the real story and shannigans that goes on with our corrupt legal system to WIN the case at any cost. And WHY? To boost someones political career or paycheck? What will that do for them when they must give an account for their deeds done in darkness when they stand before the Almighty someday? I know not what the answer is for this problem of powerful officials in place who have no honor and for those who have a hand in placing innocent people in prison. Incidently, what a remarkable resemblence our sites have!

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