Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

State drops charges in case chronicled by AJC’s ‘Breakdown’

State prosecutors announced Wednesday they will not retry Justin Chapman for arson and murder, more than a year after Georgia’s highest court found he’d been wrongly convicted.

The case against Chapman, who has always maintained his innocence, was chronicled last year in “Breakdown: Railroad Justice in a Railroad Town,” a seven-part podcast by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The podcast detailed the alarming breakdowns in Georgia’s criminal justice system throughout Chapman’s prosecution and appeals.

Key prosecution testimony against Chapman has been discredited and completely contradicted, according to a lengthy court filing Wednesday by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. The brief also said there is no other evidence to corroborate the testimony used against him. The filing does not in any way implicate Chapman as the person who committed the crimes.

In a statement, Chapman thanked his lawyers and said, "After 10 long years, justice has prevailed. It's good to be able to put this behind me and move on with my life."

“I’m just delighted,” one of Chapman’s lawyers, Michael Caplan, said. “They did the right thing. I’m so happy for Justin and his family.”

Caplan said he was able to tell Chapman the news Wednesday afternoon. “He was ecstatic and broke into tears,” the lawyer said.

» Season 1: "Breakdown: Railroad Justice in a Railroad Town"

Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court granted Chapman a new trial because prosecutors withheld critical evidence that could have been used in Chapman’s defense. Chapman, who’d served eight years behind bars for the crimes, was then released from custody and allowed to remain free on bond.

On June 20, 2006, Chapman was living in the West Georgia town of Bremen when his side of a duplex caught fire at about 3 a.m. The fire spread quickly to the adjoining apartment occupied by Alice Jackson, who died of smoke inhalation. Firefighters found the 79-year-old woman’s body under fallen sheetrock.

Shortly before the fire, Chapman and his family had left the duplex after Chapman pistol-whipped a drunken man who showed up on his front porch. William Paul Chieves had confronted Chapman for calling his aunt a “red-headed crack whore.” Chieves was also heard telephoning his brother and saying he needed to tell people what they’d do “to people who mess with us Chieves.”

Fearing Chieves’ family may come for some payback, Chapman took his family to a friend’s house across town. But prosecutors told a different story. They said Chapman was angry with his landlord for telling him he needed to move out. That was Chapman’s motive, they said, for returning to his house and setting it on fire. About a year after the fire, Chapman was tried for arson and murder, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

At trial, Chapman was represented by public defender Jan Hankins, who had an overwhelming caseload and did not have time to adequately prepare. Even though Chapman was convicted, Hankins remained convinced of his innocence and, four years ago, persuaded Caplan and John Rains, two lawyers from a top Atlanta law firm, to represent Chapman free of charge.

“Oh, my God, that’s awesome,” Hankins said Wednesday after hearing the news. “I’m so thrilled for Justin.”

Caplan and Rains assembled a team that included an experienced criminal defense attorney from Macon, two paralegals and three investigators, including two retired FBI agents. They uncovered stunning new evidence that threw into question the prosecution’s case.

The new evidence showed that lead prosecutor Charles Rooks withheld key evidence that could have led a jury to acquit Chapman of the crimes. They also showed how an Atlanta lawyer appointed to provide post-conviction representation completely botched Chapman’s motion for a new trial and his appeal.

The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council took over Chapman’s case because Haralson District Attorney Jack Browning bowed out due to conflicts of interest. For example, when Browning previously served as a public defender, he represented Joseph White, the state’s star witness against Chapman.

White testified at trial that Chapman confessed to him in jail he had started the fire. White also told jurors that when he first told prosecutors about the alleged confession, he was not seeking a deal. At that time, White was facing child molestation charges.

Chapman’s new legal team found a videotaped interview of White that clearly showed he was seeking consideration for his testimony. This recording had not been turned over to Hankins, the state Supreme Court found.

In Wednesday’s court filing, state prosecutors said that the information White provided against Chapman was inconsistent with the evidence gathered at the scene, and the state is unable to corroborate White’s testimony “in any respect.”

Another witness, Gary Allen Stroupe, also provided key testimony against Chapman. Stroupe, who died in 2012, testified he saw Chapman crossing his street a block down from his house, which was just behind the duplex, shortly before the fire lit up the night sky.

The state’s filing noted that Stroupe’s testimony was filled with inconsistencies and was contradicted by his sister, Peggy Lewis. Years after Chapman’s trial, Lewis testified she was with her brother the night of the fire and saw the same person cross the street – except she said that person wasn’t Chapman. That same night, Stroupe told her he didn’t think it was Chapman either, she said.

Both White and Stroupe received a $5,000 reward for their testimony, a fact that also was never disclosed to the jury.

After 10 years, Chapman is now free — but perhaps not entirely in the clear. The state indicates in its filing that it could charge anyone with the crime so long as it has the evidence.

The state is “incensed by this abhorrent crime” but has an ethical duty to proceed only when there is a reasonable probability of conviction, the motion said. For that reason, the state “will continue to seek new evidence which may result in a future prosecution.”

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