Justin Chapman opened the front door of his duplex on a June night in 2006 to find an angry and drunken man on his porch. The visitor’s midnight grievance: Chapman had called his aunt a “red-headed crack whore,” and the man had come on a booze-fueled mission of revenge.
Chapman denied saying it, but an argument ensued and rapidly escalated into a fight. Not much news here: two guys going at it in the middle of the night in the little west Georgia town of Bremen. But there would be one sympathetic character in this unfolding drama: the innocent elderly woman who died that night.
A few hours after the altercation, someone set Chapman’s house on fire. Alice Jackson, 79, lived alone in the other side of the duplex. Known to neighbors as “Miz Alice,” she was killed by the smoke and flame. Chapman, who had left the duplex with his family that night, was charged with setting the fire himself. A jury later agreed, and he was sentenced to life in prison, where he sits today.
But there are problems with Chapman’s case: problems with his public defender, with the prosecutor, with the star witnesses against him, and more problems with his appeal.
Chapman may or may not be innocent of arson and murder. The jury believed he set the fire; he and his new legal team say he didn’t. What is clear is that Chapman did not get a fair trial from the state of Georgia. And even after a judge ordered a new trial, the state is still fighting to keep him locked up.
On Wednesday, the Georgia Supreme Court will hear the state’s appeal of the order granting Chapman, 35, a new trial. The justices’ ruling, expected by the end of July, could enable Chapman to walk out of prison free, or at least give him another shot to prove his innocence at trial. But it could also slam the cell door on him once and for all.
‘I knew in my heart’ he was innocent
Jan Hankins, a public defender in Atlanta, was assigned Chapman’s case because the Haralson County public defender had represented witnesses who would testify against Chapman. In fact, Hankins was the state defender agency’s sole attorney handling such felony cases across the state — an impossible task.
She would often wake well before dawn to make the drive for court appearances 200 miles away. Hankins admits now that it was impossible for her to properly prepare for Chapman’s defense. She said in a recent interview that she wishes she had asked for a continuance; the judge had already granted one, but she could have asked for another.
Hankins is haunted now by the mistakes she made in that trial. Her client, she says, didn’t do it.
“I’ve never had a client that I not only believed, but knew in my heart, to be innocent, convicted of such a serious offense with a life penalty attached to it,” she said. “… I pray constantly for him. I pray that he will be out of prison soon.”
In the years since Chapman’s conviction, Hankins never let go. She made the rounds year after year to lawyers across the state, trying to find someone to take the case. For free.
Finally, Michael Caplan, a lawyer from the Atlanta firm of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, asked her a question. On a scale of one to 10, how sure was she of Chapman’s innocence?
“Eleven,” she replied.
‘Justin was telling the truth’
Caplan recruited colleague John Rains to look over the case with him. They soon drove down to talk to Chapman at Telfair State Prison.
By the time Caplan and Rains met him, Chapman had been locked up for about six years. In Bremen, he had not only been the father of four young children; he had also been addicted to pain pills, which led him to abuse another drug: methamphetamine. But his prison time enabled him to get off drugs, and he was a worship leader at the penitentiary.
“We both firmly came away with the conviction that Justin was telling the truth and his case deserved serious scrutiny,” Caplan said in an interview.
They took the case to Emmet Bondurant, their firm’s founding partner and a longtime advocate of providing free representation to clients who can’t afford legal services.
“They felt strongly about it, and that’s all it took,” Bondurant said. “With that, they had the full support of the firm.”
Now, Chapman had elite representation. Caplan and Rains were joined by Franklin J. Hogue, a well-known criminal defense attorney from Macon. The Bondurant firm retained three investigators, including two retired FBI agents, and put two paralegals on the case.
Even Hankins was stunned by what the new team uncovered.
‘People who mess with us Chieves’
On the night of the fire, Chapman was in his one-bedroom duplex with his girlfriend, his children and two friends, when an angry and inebriated William Paul Chieves showed up at the door. During the confrontation, Chieves pulled out his cellphone and called his brother, saying he might need some help. “Let’s tell these people what we do to people who mess with us Chieves,” he said, according to testimony.
Chapman pulled out a pistol and beat Chieves over the head with it. He’d won the fight but was concerned that associates of Chieves, who was arrested and jailed after the melee, would show up and retaliate. So Chapman and his family left to spend the night at his friends’ home, about a 10-minute drive away.
Chieves, who could not be reached for comment, testified at Chapman’s trial. He denied having anything to do with the fire at the duplex — and he couldn’t have lit the match. He was arrested after his fight with Chapman and spent the rest of the night in jail.
In 2013, Chieves made a startling admission to the two former FBI agents working with the defense team, Danny Sindall and John Insogna. They said he admitted helping set fire to a house in Carrollton — one month before the fire in Bremen — to retaliate against a man who beat up a friend’s girlfriend.
Chapman’s family arrived at their friends’ home shortly after 2 a.m., and it took time for everyone to settle down and go to bed, Christy Chapman, who is now Chapman’s wife, testified.
Firetrucks responded to the blaze at the duplex at 3:20 a.m., which means the fire probably started around 3. This meant that after he took his family to his friends’ house, Chapman would have needed 20 to 30 minutes to drive back to the duplex, set it on fire and then make the return trip to his friends’ home.
Chapman, who’d said he couldn’t sleep, did drive back to the duplex with his children in tow at 5 a.m. He found the house burned to the ground and his possessions destroyed. Firefighters told him his elderly neighbor, Miz Alice, was dead.
‘I was not trying to get favor’
The prosecution’s star witness at the trial was a jailhouse snitch named Joseph White, who was being held at the Haralson County jail at the time of Chapman’s arrest.
White testified that Chapman told him he had set fire to the duplex because of disputes with his landlord.
“He never showed no remorse for anything that took place,” White testified.
He then made a statement that would become a bombshell later on.
White told jurors he wasn’t trying to make a deal with authorities concerning his own case when he first told them that Chapman had confessed to him.
“I was not trying to get favor,” White testified.
But Chapman’s new legal team found a taped interview of White on which White did precisely that — try to get help in exchange for information. Prosecutor Charles Rooks conducted that interview, and the tape was never turned over to the defense.
White made another videotaped statement to investigators four weeks later, and this time his story was inconsistent with what he’d said a month before.
“The presence of that second interview really showed that White was essentially making it up,” Rains, a member of Chapman’s legal team, said.
But there was more.
Contradicting the star witness
White had also told investigators they could check with another inmate who was on the same cellblock, a man named William Liner, who had also heard Chapman’s confession.
Liner never testified at the trial in 2007, but he became a key witness later on.
He told the court that prosecutor Rooks traveled to Hays State Prison, where Liner was serving time for drug possession, a week before the trial. But Liner says he did not provide the corroboration that Rooks was seeking. Instead, Liner said, he told Rooks that he never heard Chapman admit to starting the fire.
Rooks never disclosed this to Hankins, the new defense team found. If he had, Liner’s statements could have been used to undercut White’s powerful testimony.
Rooks declined to comment on the case. He is no longer with the Haralson DA’s office. In an affidavit filed last year, Rooks swore that Liner told him he heard Chapman confess to starting the fire. But Liner, Rooks said, refused to testify at the trial because he didn’t want to be a snitch.
In a recent interview, Liner said again that Chapman never confessed to anything and that he never told Rooks otherwise.
Donald Stevens, the lead sheriff’s investigator in the case, recalled accompanying Rooks to a North Georgia prison to talk with an inmate, although he could not remember Liner’s name. “He just told us he had no information to give us,” Stevens said, declining further comment. Hays State Prison is in Trion, a small town in North Georgia.
‘I’m innocent. I didn’t do it’
A second key witness at the trial helped put Chapman away.
Gary Allen Stroup, who lived with his sister one street away from Chapman’s duplex, said he saw someone cross the street a block down from his house shortly before the fire lit up the night sky. This person was walking away from Chapman’s duplex, Stroup said.
When he was interviewed by police right after the fire, Stroup said he couldn’t say for sure whether Chapman was the person he’d seen.
By the time of the trial, however, Stroup’s equivocation had vanished.
“I believe it was Mr. Chapman,” he told jurors.
Chapman’s new legal team later interviewed Stroup’s sister, Peggy Lewis, who said she was with her brother that night and saw the same person cross the street.
But it was so dark, Lewis said, she couldn’t tell whether the person was a man or woman; in addition, this person was running, whereas Chapman always walked with a cane, she testified. Lewis also said that Stroup drank a 12-pack of beer and used drugs that evening.
Chapman’s new lawyers also called on a woman who lived across the street from Stroup to testify. When Duana Alarid talked to Stroup a few days after the fire, he told her he was going to collect $10,000 in reward money. Don’t tell my sister, Stroup said, Alarid testified.
Shortly after Chapman’s conviction, Stroup and White split the $10,000 reward.
Chapman did not testify on his own behalf at trial. He only spoke out when the judge asked him whether he had anything to say before sentencing.
“I’m innocent,” Chapman said. “I didn’t do it.”
‘Fallen through the cracks at every level’
The defense team, rolling out its new evidence, pleaded Chapman’s case in December 2013 at a hearing in Telfair County.
On March 20, 2014, Superior Court Judge Frederick Mullis issued a 19-page order granting Chapman a new trial.
Mullis found that if the prosecution had turned over White’s videotaped interview and the information about Liner’s interview to Hankins before the trial, “a reasonable probability exists that the jury would not have found Chapman guilty.”
Nevertheless, Attorney General Sam Olens appealed Mullis’ order to the state Supreme Court. This is what led to this week’s hearing before the high court. Olens declined to comment.
In his order, Mullis also said Chapman should have already been granted a new trial because his first appeal was handled so poorly.
Fenn Little, an Atlanta lawyer appointed to represent Chapman in his initial appeals, failed to provide meaningful representation, the judge found.
Little has admitted he only “skimmed” the transcript of Chapman’s trial, conducted a cursory review of Hankins’ file and failed to look at files held by the prosecution and fire investigators. He did not find new witnesses such as Lewis and Alarid and never discovered that White’s videotaped interview had not been turned over to Hankins.
Little did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Caplan, who left the Bondurant firm a year ago to start his own practice, also maintains Chapman is innocent.
“This is what can occur if you do not respect and protect the rights of the accused,” he said. “This is an example of a case that has fallen through the cracks at each level of the justice system.”