Glen Edward Chapman, 41, pulls on a leather jacket, tugs at the sleeves and rolls back his shoulders: a perfect fit.
Susan Shandor, the office assistant in UNCA’s psychology department, gave Chapman the jacket. She’d held onto it for years in hopes that someone would have a use for it. Shandor is one of many local people who are helping the recent arrival build a new life here.
Until recently, Chapman’s home was Central Prison in Raleigh. He spent 14 years on death row after being convicted of the murders of Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Yvette Conley in Hickory in 1994 (the two cases were tried jointly). He was freed April 2 after Catawba County District Attorney James Gaither Jr. dismissed the charges against him. In November, Judge Robert C. Ervin had ordered a retrial due to extensive, fundamental flaws in the handling of the original case, including suppressed evidence, false police testimony and substandard legal counsel.
“There was so much more in Ed’s case that was faulty,” says Frank Goldsmith of Marion, who’s been Chapman’s lead attorney since 2002. “It wasn’t a flaw in the system that freed him but officers who concealed evidence. I don’t know how you legislate against that.”
UNCA psychology professor Pamela Laughon played a key role in getting Chapman released. Brought in as a “mitigation specialist” during the appeals process, Laughon enlisted students in her “Psychology and Law” class; together, they exhaustively researched and reinvestigated the case, unearthing much of the information that gained Chapman his freedom.
“Pam and her students played a critical role in digging up evidence for Chapman,” says Goldsmith. “Pam went beyond the call of duty, and she scoured the neighborhood for witnesses. She asks tough questions, and she wasn’t afraid.”
These days, the former inmate works as a dishwasher at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Asheville. He goes to bed around midnight and wakes up at 5 a.m., anxious to get to work.
“I don’t have time to sit around and get down,” says Chapman, who’s staying with a friend in town till he finds an apartment (see sidebar, “Homeless”). “Just to be able to work has been enough.” Being free, he says, is “a slap in the face to the people that put me there for so long and tried to keep me down.”
When he was young, notes Chapman, “I’d go ‘hustle’ to get my rent paid. But this is my hustle now—a legitimate job. It’s like hitting the fountain of youth.”
A tragedy of errors
Judge Ervin concluded that chief investigator Dennis Rhoney of the Hickory police had given false testimony and withheld evidence—including a confession by Ramseur’s actual murderer as well as statements by witnesses who’d seen Conley alive after she’d supposedly been killed. Conley, said the judge, may not have been murdered at all (perhaps dying of a drug overdose instead), and Chapman probably did not kill Ramseur.
The police, says Laughon, “were sloppy. They had a bunch of murders, they freaked and took advantage of a poor black guy whose family was not going to get in there and beat down the doors, like yours would if they thought you were wronged.”
Ervin also found that Chapman’s original attorneys had failed to provide adequate counsel. Thomas Portwood was subsequently removed from another death-penalty case and entered treatment for alcohol abuse; he died in 2003 of alcohol-related illness. The other defense attorney, Robert Adams, was disciplined by the North Carolina State Bar for alcohol abuse.
In the aftermath of Chapman’s exoneration, Rhoney has been suspended from his job as a deputy in the Burke County Sheriff’s Office, where he’s worked since 2004. He is now on paid administrative leave while the SBI investigates.
Nationwide, Chapman is the 128th death-row inmate to be exonerated and freed since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. He’s the seventh inmate freed from North Carolina—and the second in four months, the center reports.
Many of those inmates have been helped by newly available DNA evidence, though that didn’t figure in Chapman’s case, because his semen was found in Conley’s body. Chapman admitted having had consensual sex with Conley, but there was no other physical evidence linking Chapman to either murder.
“He was a poor, uneducated guy, and when they found the semen that linked him to Tenene, that was it,” says Laughon. “But you and I both know that you can have sex with people that you don’t kill. The moral for the story is to be careful where you leave your semen, because if someone gets killed in the vicinity … you will be suspect No. 1.”
One issue that loomed large in Chapman’s appeal was the fact that a witness had picked another suspect out of a photo lineup. Rhoney never told prosecutors about the lineup, and it wasn’t mentioned during the initial trial, Laughon reports. According to the judge’s order, the photos from the lineup are missing from the Hickory Police Department’s files and were never submitted as evidence.
“The district attorney in the case said he had told the lawyers they could have whatever they wanted, but it looks like the Hickory Police Department were holding materials that they never even gave the district attorney,” notes Laughon. “The DA blamed it on the detectives.”
In the Ramseur case, Rhoney testified that he’d produced all the information that might have been of value to the defense. Based on other witnesses’ testimony, however, and on evidence that was found in the Hickory Police Department’s files but not in the district attorney’s files, the judge ruled that Rhoney’s testimony wasn’t credible.
During a break at one of the appeal hearings, Laughon recalls, “I looked at [Rhoney] at one point and asked him, ‘Why do you think my client did this?’ He said, ‘Ed had a crack problem.’ His position was that when people use drugs, they kill people.”
All these legal missteps complicated things for Chapman’s defense team. “We had to get all the files, and all the original defense attorney’s files had been lost,” notes Goldsmith. “No one seemed to be able to locate the files, and they still can’t.”
A passion for truth
After Goldsmith and Chapel Hill attorney Jessica Leaven were appointed by the state Office of Indigent Defense Services to handle Chapman’s appeals in 2002, he brought in Laughon, whom he describes as the “best mitigation specialist around.” In capital cases, mitigation specialists search for factors or evidence that could help get a death sentence thrown out or secure a retrial. Laughon, who chairs UNCA’s psychology department, works as a mitigation specialist on the side.
Over the next five years, Laughon and her students put in countless hours working on the Chapman case. The more she looked into it, the more Laughon began to question the original verdict.
“In the capital-murder business, when they try to take your life, nine times out of 10 they know you did it,” she explains, adding, “I didn’t walk in thinking Ed was innocent.” A mitigation specialist since 1996, Laughon notes: “I’ve had a lot of ‘Eds’ that have told me stuff all over the board, but we ended up doing a complete reinvestigation—interviewing witnesses, the doctors that handled the body—we redid everything. It was different than what my usual [cases are] like.”
During those years, dozens of Laughon’s students helped research the case, attended court hearings and/or helped out in other ways. Michelle DuBois, a 2006 UNCA graduate, helped Laughon review crime-scene photos and sift the evidence, looking for discrepancies.
“We were just undergraduates that had no experience in the criminal-justice system, and she trusted us with such a huge project: a life,” notes DuBois, who’s now a graduate student in clinical counseling psychology at Brenau University in Georgia. “She wanted us to look at the facts [with] fresh eyes, because there was so much on the line.”
Classmate Latanya Harris also helped research the case. “When I went to his hearing, it was my first time in a courtroom, and it was so interesting watching the behavior of the witness and the DA, who kept rolling his eyes and saying sarcastic things,” recalls Harris, who’s now attending law school at N.C. Central University. “At the time, I didn’t think there was enough evidence for him to be in prison, so I wasn’t surprised when I found out he’d gotten out.”
Laughon, says DuBois, “had this passion and determination to get the truth out. A lot of times when people are sentenced, they are forgotten, but sometimes it’s not so cut-and-dry. Working with Dr. Laughon changed my outlook on the criminal-justice system: There is always a different story.”
The work presented various challenges for the students. “It was really difficult to interview prostitutes that didn’t want to talk to us, so we tried to make them feel comfortable [by meeting] them at a really nasty hotel,” remembers UNCA alumna Jennifer Mayer, who drove to Hickory every day one summer to review newspaper stories on microfiche in search of clues to the case. “We went to the crime scenes of the two women that were killed. I started to recognize the reality of what happened. I was able to look at the newspaper and find things [from] a year before that were linked.”
UNCA alumna Shannon Griswold also worked on the case and has corresponded with Chapman for the past three years. “There are many areas all over the case where things were not done correctly,” she notes. Those experiences, says Griswold, have solidified her opposition to the death penalty.
Born in Hickory in 1967, Chapman moved back and forth between Hickory and Florida between the ages of 4 and 15; his dad, a chef, went wherever there was work. After his parents separated, his father married a woman who had a temper.
Once, when he brought home a bad report card, says Chapman: “She made me get naked to the bone and whipped me with an electric cord up and down my body. Then she ran a hot bath and made me get in it. The marks have faded, but a few are still there.”
He never graduated from high school. “I thought I was missing out on something, and I thought if I left school, I could find it. All I did after I left was chase it.” Lacking an education, Chapman turned to dealing drugs and serving as the middleman in illegal car sales. Constantly on the run, he once made a dummy out of stuffed clothes and put it under the covers because he knew the cops were coming.
“I wrote a note on top that said, ‘If you’re reading this now, you probably feel foolish.’ I went and sat on the top of the house and waited,” Chapman recalls. “When the cops showed up, Gwynn [Anderson, his common-law wife] told them I was in bed, and when they found the note, they laughed and said for me to come down to the station when I got back. They knew I’d go.”
But when Chapman landed on death row in 1994, he entered a different world. “I had to earn respect in a way that I didn’t really want to. I got into it with the biggest guy there: He wanted to watch the Hornets game, and I wanted to watch the Tar Heels. I think he felt threatened, and I punched him,” says Chapman. “He ended up breaking my foot, but no one messed with me again.”
To deal with his frustration, Chapman turned to reading and writing. “For the first three years, I would get so mad I would write poetry and read so many books that I would make myself tired,” he recalls. “Then I started hustlin’ again, [writing] poetry for some of the guys’ girlfriends.”
To Chapman, the men on death row are family. “If you don’t have anything at all, they’ll give it to you,” he notes. “There were times that I hadn’t heard from my family in two years, and I would get real down. One of the guys would take notice and distract me. It made all the difference.”
His wife, Gwynn, died of liver cancer in 2005 at age 40; they had two sons. “I let my boys down,” Chapman says now. “Stacey was 2 when I went in, and Corey was 7. I have to earn them back and get my stuff together.” Stacey, now 17, is living in New York with Gwynn’s mother and pursuing a GED; Corey, 22, lives in South Carolina with his girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter.
Each year, more than 22,000 inmates are released from North Carolina’s state prisons to return to society, according to the Department of Correction. And one of the most important factors in determining how successfully these people make the transition is whether they can find and hold down a steady job. A gainfully employed ex-offender is three times less likely to commit another crime, according to the state Department of Correction.
Chapman found out about the job he now has through Grant Waters, a UNCA student who works as assistant banquet chef at the hotel. Waters mentioned the job to Chapman when he spoke to Laughon’s class shortly after his release.
“Dr. Laughon wrote him a letter of recommendation, which helps him on paper. But once he gets in there working, it’s all up to him to prove himself,” Waters explains. “She had talked about his case in class, but I didn’t get the full effect of what he had been through until I met him. Anyone that’s been in a situation like his deserves a second chance.”
Laughon, notes Waters, is “an advocate in [Chapman’s] situation, and having someone doing that—even though the charges were dropped—helps. Without a substantial amount of room on the application, it can be hard to explain what he’s been through.”
Co-workers, says Chapman, have been very accepting about his past. “One guy said to me: ‘I know you from somewhere. Have we worked together before or something?’ And I told him that this was my first job in 16 years,” Chapman recalls. “He asked me what I’d been doing, and I told him I’d been on death row, and he says, ‘That’s it—I saw you on TV!’”
Head banquet chef Billy Morris says he had concerns before meeting Chapman.
“One of the things we worried about was if he was socialized,” Morris recalls. “We didn’t know if he had been kept alone and how he would handle working in an environment with 170 employees and customers.” But those concerns, says Morris, were short-lived. “Once I met him, I knew it wasn’t an issue. Co-workers expect you to do your part, and he does that and then some.”
After languishing in prison for years, Glen Edward Chapman has recently been finding plenty of friends—old and new.
The Rev. Burt Young of First Baptist Church in Bladenboro grew up with Chapman and testified on his behalf as a character witness during the appeal process.
“I went home three years ago, and there was a message on my machine from [Pamela] Laughon that said I could help my childhood friend,” Young recalls. The two boys were friends in elementary school, though they drifted apart when they attended different middle schools. By the time they were reunited in high school, they were taking different classes and the childhood friendship was lost, says Young.
“I had gone away to college and didn’t even know he was in trouble. When I found out about the details, I was so angry that he hadn’t been protected.”
After Chapman was released, Young’s congregation raised $1,000 for him in a single Sunday.
Others are also stepping up to help. The First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Asheville has set up a fund to help Chapman when he finds a home (see box, “Helping Hands”). Members of the congregation have also donated a bicycle, clothing and couches.
“All of this is waiting to see where he lands,” says Nina McIntosh, who’s coordinating the project. “I thought this could be one thing I could do, though I haven’t met him. He sounds like he’s very independent, which is amazing because he’s been away for so long. We’re trying to walk the line between helping him find his way and not impinging upon his independence.”
Church member Noel Nickel, who’s also a part-time mitigation specialist (though she didn’t work on Chapman’s case), came up with the idea of setting up a fund after Laughon called her for help. “The idea that we had was to be involved in his rebuilding of life, but we’re giving him the time and space he needs to figure out what he needs from us,” Nickel explains. “His story is another example of the faultiness in our system.”
Even after Judge Ervin had ordered Chapman’s retrial, it took some help from friends to get the job done.
“Once they order the retrial, they don’t set a timeline for when the decision has to be made,” Young explains. “After a month or so, we still hadn’t heard anything, so I called my dad and told him about the situation.” Young’s father, Hickory attorney Charles R. Young Sr., had known Chapman as a boy and had also known his grandmother, who was a cook in the Youngs’ church.
“My dad wrote a letter to the DA and said that this would not reflect well if it was taken to the media. Three weeks later, Glen was out.”
The long road home
Laughon’s work, however, didn’t end once Chapman was sprung: She’s playing a central role in helping him rebuild his life. When Chapman first arrived here, Laughon accompanied him on job interviews, and these days, she drives him to work.
“I’d known him for so long,” she says. “Ed and I’d sit in the back of the prison and talk for hours, so when he moved here, I knew I had to help.”
A key piece of Chapman’s reintegration, supporters say, is helping him get a home of his own. To that end, Laughon is working with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a nonprofit based in Carrboro, N.C., to raise $10,000 for a down payment on a house (see box). “I want to have somewhere to have [sons Stacey and Corey] stay when they come visit with my grandbabies,” notes Chapman. To date, the campaign has raised a little more than $500.
Meanwhile, there’s also the question of compensation for the substantial chunk of his life that Chapman has lost. His only hope for receiving compensation, says Goldsmith, is either to sue the city of Hickory or gain a “pardon of innocence” from the governor.
“He got no money from the state of North Carolina after 15 years, and I think he deserves some local, regional and statewide support,” notes Laughon. “The detective who lied was suspended with full pay, mind you.”
If the governor granted a pardon of innocence, Chapman would receive $20,000 from the state for each year he was incarcerated. If Chapman won a civil suit against the police, a jury would set the amount of damages. To date, no decision has been made as to whether to pursue these options, says Goldsmith, noting that such pardons “are very rare. I am told that Gov. Easley has done it only twice—both in cases involving DNA clearance, which Chapman does not have.”
Nonetheless, supporters say, Chapman needs and deserves our help. “He was told 10 minutes before he was released that he would be getting out—and with nothing but the clothes on his back,” Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, points out. “We all have a responsibility to help those innocent people that were condemned to die. Even if the governor does not give him a pardon of innocence, he is still innocent. It’s what the courts do that counts.”
And whatever the future holds in store for Chapman, he’s pleased with the astonishing turnaround in his fortunes. “I’m very grateful, especially to the students, but I hope more than anything that they wouldn’t look at me as a victim,” he says. “I’m opening the door for people, but then they don’t see me. I’m a survivor, not a victim.”
[Lisa Gillespie is a mass-communication major at UNCA; she will graduate in December.]