The sergeant says, “Pack up.“
Glen Edward Chapman has no idea what’s going on. It’s a sunny afternoon in April, and he has just come in from playing basketball with some of the other inmates at the maximum-security state penitentiary in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s still drying off from his five-minute shower—if you let the water run too long, they extract 10 bucks from your prison account—and he’s confused. He knows that a judge has ordered a new trial, but nobody’s said anything about when it will be. Pack up?
“I’ve been packed up for a long time,“ Chapman says to the sergeant. As one of his small gestures of mental independence, he’s never gotten around to arranging his personal items in a neat space under the bed—that would suggest he plans on sticking around. Instead, he’s kept everything in a bag for close to 14 years while he’s gradually morphed from a wiry and wide-eyed 26-year-old into a stocky, bespectacled 40-year-old. A guard leads him out of Unit III. Chapman expects the two of them to turn right, toward Safekeeping, where prisoners are housed when they’re awaiting trial, but they turn left, toward Shipping. The guard is as nonchalant as a shopkeeper telling a late-night customer that it’s closing time. “See you later,“ he says. “You’re going home.“
Chapman figures the dude is joking. When a guy’s been sitting on death row for 14 years, when he has missed his mother’s funeral and his grandmother’s funeral and watching his two sons grow up, letting him go free can’t possibly be as perfunctory as dropping off a package at the post office, can it? Chapman stepped out of that shower 10 minutes ago, and now he’s trading in his red jumpsuit for a white shirt and black trousers, and now, stunned and silent, he’s being placed in a government car and driven by guards to the back exit. And that’s it. One moment Ed Chapman is inside, marked for death by lethal injection. The next, he’s out.
Just beyond the gate, one of his lawyers, Jessica Leaven, is waiting for him. Chapman slides into the passenger seat of her green Volkswagen and stares at the scenery as they roll through the streets of Raleigh. She tells him there’s not even going to be a new trial. After the judge’s order in November, the Catawba County district attorney’s office reviewed the files on Chapman’s 1994 murder convictions, decided there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed, and threw out the case. He first experiences freedom as a physical sensation: A massive weight seems to shear away from him. He lightens. He can breathe better.
Only temporarily, though, because about 45 minutes later there’s a press conference. The TV cameras and microphones make Chapman so nervous that he removes his eyeglasses. Without them, he can’t make out the faces of the reporters, which comes as a comfort. They ask what it’s like to walk out of a time capsule and discover cell phones, the Internet, and energy drinks. They want to know how he feels. But how he feels is a complicated matter. Moments after the press conference he borrows a phone and calls his sons, Stacey and Correy, who are 17 and 20. He has tried to stay in touch with them through letters—sometimes he’d get the boys’ schoolwork, look it over in his cell, and send it back to them with notes—but he has barely seen their faces since 1994. For a couple of days he can’t reach them on the phone. When he finally does, he has a message for each: “I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to be there all the time. Anything you want to ask me, go ahead and ask. Don’t be afraid. From my experience I hope you will learn what road to take and what not to take.“ He’s come out of prison with no clothes, no car, no place of his own, and a sum of money—about $160—that would barely buy dinner and a tank of gas. “I know there are gonna be obstacles in my way,“ he says a few weeks after getting out. “I decided a long time ago that I’m gonna make it, hell or high water. If I can’t get an apartment, if I got to sleep up under a bridge, I’m gonna get me a box and put some tin on it and I’m gonna have me a good ol’ nighttime. Bein’ on death row was stressful enough.“
Even though he wound up there because the original defense lawyers and investigators for the prosecution botched nearly every aspect of his case, Chapman insists that he let go of his bitterness a long time ago. His life before he was arrested in 1992 was a directionless blur of drugs and hustling in the seedier precincts of Hickory, North Carolina, and Chapman imagines, paradoxically, that if Catawba County had never sentenced him to death, he might by now be dead. Which leads to another paradox: The way Chapman feels might be considered strange for a man who has been exonerated of murder. He feels guilty.
The past few years have been a challenge for defenders of capital punishment. The advent of DNA testing and the work of organizations like the Innocence Project have revealed that a surprising number of people on death row didn’t commit the murders they’ve been charged with. (DNA evidence has led to 218 exonerations since 1989, according to the Innocence Project; 16 of those inmates had been sentenced to death.) In less than a year in North Carolina alone, Chapman and two other men have been exonerated after findings of prosecutorial misconduct. With each release, the rush of euphoria is followed by the thud of reality: After the latest Lazarus has risen from the dead, how is he supposed to live?
Chapman’s case is remarkable for its sheer messiness. In August 1992, the bodies of two young women turned up in a rough neighborhood of southeast Hickory. One was Betty Jean Ramseur, 31, who was found naked under a burned house. The other was Tenene Conley, 28, who was slumped in a closet in an unoccupied rental. They were suspected prostitutes, and Chapman knew them—they all floated in and out of Hickory’s close-knit crack-smoking underworld. No eyewitnesses accused Chapman of the crime, yet there was one crucial and indisputable piece of physical evidence: Chapman’s semen. He’d had sex with Conley on either Thursday night or Friday morning, and she was found dead on Saturday.
That fact turned out to be enough to convince a jury that Chapman was a murderer. But other scraps of evidence disintegrated as soon as sharp-eyed defense lawyers put them under a magnifying glass. Unfortunately for Chapman, it took about eight years for those lawyers to show up. His original court-appointed duo, Robert Adams and Tom Portwood, barely bothered to investigate the charges (both were known to be serious drinkers). Chapman had new lawyers for most of his stay in prison, but no progress was made with his appeals. Years passed. It wasn’t until 2002, after Tye Hunter, the executive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, passed along word of Chapman’s plight to a prominent North Carolina lawyer named Frank Goldsmith, that Chapman had someone in his corner who could challenge the foundations of the case. “I am not a particularly emotional person,“ Goldsmith says. “However, the government’s conduct in this case angered me more than in any other case in which I have been directly involved.“
A vagrant had claimed to have seen a man and a woman at the house where Betty Jean Ramseur’s body was discovered. When the vagrant looked at a photo lineup, he identified someone other than Chapman. Dennis Rhoney, the Hickory Police Department’s chief investigator in the case, never told prosecutors about this glitch. Rhoney also received a tip from a man who said he’d overheard a conversation in a Catawba County jail. An inmate—again, not Chapman—had talked incriminatingly about Ramseur. “What I done with her,“ he reportedly said, “I thought they would never find her unless they tore the damn house down.“ But Rhoney didn’t file a report about that, either. (A judge later determined that Rhoney had lied under oath about supplying all the necessary evidence.) That information probably would have produced reasonable doubt in the courtroom, but members of the jury never heard it. They didn’t hear that Conley was seen alive after Chapman had been hanging out with her. They didn’t hear from a forensic pathologist who theorized that Conley wasn’t murdered at all. Most likely, he said, she died of a drug overdose.
These days Chapman smiles easily, asks with polite regularity if it’s okay to light up a cigarette, and has a way of listening and watching that suggests how years in forced confinement have trained him to sit still and stay alert. But he’s got prison nerves. Shortly after his release, he sat on the porch of his father’s place in Hickory and heard tree branches scraping against the side of a house. The sound sent him into a panic. Another time, his friend Pam Laughon reached into her pocket and jangled her keys. Chapman flinched and ducked.
Laughon, the chair of the psychology department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, was a member of the team that helped Chapman go free, and when Chapman got out she became his ad hoc caretaker. He stayed at her house, in a quiet, shady area outside Asheville. Her son was away at college, so Chapman slept in his room, beneath a poster of Yoda wielding a light saber. For weeks they went looking for apartments, but landlords raised an eyebrow when they learned about a previous felony on Chapman’s record—a small-time robbery from his bad-boy phase in Hickory. His being exonerated of murder didn’t mean that the world now saw him as innocent. Laughon helped him land a job washing dishes at the Renaissance hotel and provided him with meals and a cell phone, so now, in the first weeks after his release, Chapman is reciprocating by devoting himself to an endless marathon of chores. He clears leaves and brush on her property. He buys supplies to sand and stain her outdoor deck. He finds an old cooler and scrubs it clean. By four in the afternoon one day he’s eaten nothing but a banana, yet he’s still scouring and polishing every inch of the house. He moves the TV and wipes away the dust underneath it, then does the same with the CD rack, then shifts to the ash in the fireplace. “My fear is of failing,“ he says. “That’s why I want to stay busy. Because if I’m not doin’ something, then eventually I’m gonna get bored.“ He knows from the old days that booze and drugs—pot, coke, crack—have a way of colonizing empty patches of time. “I’ve seen what the old me was like, and I don’t like that person. I’m determined not to be that person.“
Prison is all about rules—strict, punitive, even absurd ones. Chapman can recite a litany of regulations from his time there. For each rule you broke, the system would withdraw $10 from your fund. “Masturbation,“ Chapman says. “If they see you doin’ it, you’re going to get charged with it. Ten bucks. Ten bucks for cussin’. Ten bucks for disrespect. Ten bucks for horseplay—wrasslin’ and so forth. If you get caught smokin’ in your room, $10. Stockpiling medication, $10. If you get caught with nudie pictures, that’s contraband. Any contraband, $10. Stand in somebody’s doorway, that’s $10. You can’t really do anything.“
He can date that sense of powerlessness to New Year’s Eve, 1992. He was at his grandmother’s house when the police officers arrived. He was wearing a pair of undershorts. His grandmother begged the officers to let Chapman put on more clothes. Two of his cousins helped him wriggle into a pair of sweatpants while he was handcuffed. Outside, the infrared beams zeroed in. A flurry of cameras. He was told he was being charged with the murder of Betty Jean Ramseur (he would be charged with Tenene Conley’s several months later), and he remembers shouting something like “Man, you crazy. I didn’t do no shit like that!“ The nightmare only grew more surreal through his trial and conviction. “It was like having an out-of-body experience,“ he says. “You’re actually seeing yourself sitting there screamin’ and hollerin’ and asking for help.“
When Chapman arrived in Unit III, he had a stroke of good fortune. He ran into Nathan Bowie, a friend from Hickory whom he’d always considered a little brother. Bowie had been convicted of murder for a shooting in May 1991. “Just seein’ him lit me up,“ Chapman says, “but at the same time it made me sad, because here we were, both in this bad situation.“ Neither man was assigned to a cell yet. They slept on beds in the common room where inmates watched TV. The chitter-chatter each night was constant: Imagine trying to get rest inside a beehive. “I was like, Wow, man, I can’t go to sleep like this,’“ Chapman remembers. “It made me paranoid, because I didn’t know the guys. I told Nathan, Look, I’m gonna stay up, and you sleep. And then when you wake up, I’ll go to sleep.’ This was my mind-set when I went in there. Nathan was like, You ain’t gotta do that. Go on and sleep, man. All these guys here are going to watch over you.’“
People assume that prison life is an unending parade of horrors, but Chapman insists that death row was different. When he talks about his stretch of hard time, he often does so in the present tense, as if he were still there, and he speaks with affection for the “family“ of men who ate the same unidentifiable slop and breathed the same dank air. “I call Nathan Boo-Boo,“ he says. “Henry Wallace, I call him the Gator Man. Then there’s Psycho. Heh, he’s just a little spitfire, that’s all. Then there’s Axe—I call him Wayyyyne. Les. El Rico. Gotti. Funky Red. Jameel. J.C. Petey. Doc Holliday. Stat Man. Bird Man. Tennessee. Big Ray. Revvy Rev. Mr. Sunny. Big Joe. Bones. Booger. That was another guy from Hickory that got executed.“
What Chapman remembers about the first three years is that he cried all the time. Then he underwent a transformation. He woke up determined to free himself—mentally, yes, but also legally, with a steady campaign of letters to people on the outside who might take up his cause. Chapman doesn’t attribute this switch to any of the usual heroic-prisoner narratives. He didn’t find God. He didn’t see the light after devouring The Power of Positive Thinking. He simply began to absorb lessons from the other men in Unit III. He saw what made some survive and others sink irrevocably into isolation and despair. “A lot of people would say that winnin’ the lottery is the best thing that ever could happen to them in their life,“ Chapman says. “But my experience with these men, I feel that that is my lottery. I feel that that has made me the richest person in the world, and I wouldn’t trade that with Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or any of them.“
Bonding on death row came with a catch, of course. “The only time I would get fear, when it would hit me really hard,“ Chapman says, “was when they were taking a guy down to execute him.“ He guesses that more than 15 men from Unit III were given “the gurney“ —lethal injection—while he waited for his own number to come up. Each time, a quiet would descend over the unit. The inmates had a ritual of remembrance. They’d pass by the door of the dead man’s cell and knock and call out his name. “No matter where they take you, brother,“ they’d say, “you still with us.“
At the time of his arrest, Chapman had a girlfriend from New York City named Gwen Anderson, the mother of Correy and Stacey, then 5 and 2. Chapman considered Anderson the love of his life. “Yeah,“ he says, “that was my baby. This woman genuinely loved me. Even when my family got tired of me, she was there. Even when I was screwin’ up, she stuck by me.“ The two of them relied on a policy they called Confession Session. Its guiding principle was radical honesty. “If I flirted with a girl, if I messed around with somebody,“ Chapman says, “we would tell each other and we couldn’t get mad. That was just our way of trying to be clear with each other.“
On the day he was sentenced to death, he knew he had to be clear. He was 26; she was 27. They were planning to get married, but Chapman made a radically honest move. “I broke up with her,“ he says. “I didn’t want her to put her life on hold. Because I loved her enough, I would let her go. I told her, Look, if I get out, if what we had was real, and you’re not with anybody, then we can move forward. We’re breakin’ up because of a situation that’s beyond us.’ She cried. She was like, I don’t want to break up! I don’t want to break up!’ I said, Well, okay. We’re just takin’ some time off.’“ Later, Anderson wrote letters to Chapman asking for his opinion about guys she met. “I told her, Go with your heart,’“ Chapman says. “And she was like, Well, I can’t go with my heart. You’re still holding it.’“
If there’s a place where Chapman’s bitterness does surge back, it’s Hickory. He radiates anxiety as soon as he hits his hometown. Over a lunch of chicken fingers at the Olde Hickory Tap Room, Chapman lowers his voice conspiratorially when he senses the presence of plainclothes police officers. He thinks they’re tracking him. “I have to watch it everywhere I go,“ he says. “I just don’t trust ’em. They’re hoping that I’ll fall back into the same old routine. Send someone to have a drink with me, and hopefully I’ll confess to something. If that means I’ve got to walk around with a tape recorder in my pocket, I will do that. But I’m not going to live in fear. I’m not going to be paranoid.“ That policy is not always easy to put into practice. Halfway through lunch Chapman taps his cigarette on an ashtray and raises his eyebrows. “We might need to leave in a few seconds,“ he says. He motions his chin toward two beefy, buzz-cut men sitting on stools at a nearby table. They’re cops, Chapman insists—and so was another guy who passed by a few moments ago. “Show you a trick,“ Chapman goes on. With his fingers, he delicately snips off the filter end of his cigarette and rolls it up in a napkin. He’s only being careful, he says. Detectives might use the cigarette to get his saliva.
This is meant to be a momentous morning. On a bright and humid day in May, the North Carolina “exonerees“ are coming together at the North Carolina State Legislative Building, where activists and state leaders are convening to talk about the death penalty, and it’s a powerful sight. Chapman’s the first to arrive. He’s joined by Jonathan Hoffman and Bo Jones, both recently freed from death row, along with Darryl Hunt, who spent almost 20 years in prison after being falsely accused of rape and murder. All four are sharply dressed—vests, cuff links, shined shoes—and sitting together they carry something unmistakable: a stillness. They’re muted, watchful, stoic.
Raleigh’s Central Prison lies about 10 minutes away. As Chapman strolls through the halls of government, Laughon begs him not to call the lawmakers what he’s been calling them all morning: “crooks.“ The occasion is supposed to be uplifting. “Something positive is definitely going to come out of this,“ says Jeremy Collins, the young campaign coordinator from the anti-death-penalty group North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium. “Every time someone gets exonerated, a thousand people change their minds about the death penalty.“ But one meeting with a legislator gets canceled; another turns into little more than a handshake. The exonerees, all African-American, stand in a row at a fiery press conference about a bill that’s aimed at making death-penalty sentencing more race-blind, but the four men spend most of their big day of vindication in Raleigh waiting for politicians who fail to materialize. “The only time they run toward you,“ Chapman says, “is when they want you to vote for them.“ But it’s fine—Chapman has personal matters to focus on. Someone who heard his story called to offer him a three-bedroom house, in an upscale Asheville neighborhood, for $400 a month. Chapman needs to move in and launch another round of scrubbing and scouring and polishing. He’s got to become more active in guiding his sons—Stacey’s in New York and working at McDonald’s; Correy’s in South Carolina and has a job at Bojangles’. Chapman hasn’t seen them yet. He’s worried that they’ll go off-track and get into trouble.
After all, they didn’t just lose their father for 14 years. They lost their mother, too. Chapman can’t shake the memory of Gwen Anderson’s last visit to Central, three years ago. She’d been drinking a lot since his incarceration, and Chapman could tell she was sick. She was living with another man. “Do you love him?“ Chapman asked her, as they watched each other’s eyes through the glass. “I like him,“ she said. “I don’t love him.“ “You might still love me,“ Chapman said, “but you love that man.“ Anderson laughed. She said the other man was jealous of Chapman because he still had her heart. “I’m jealous of him,“ Chapman told her, “because he’s got you now.“
Gwen died of cancer a few weeks later. That’s the thing about death row. It has a way of killing people, even the ones who aren’t convicted. If they had one last Confession Session, Chapman might tell her about the guilt he carries around. Because what put him on death row was hanging out with the wrong people, but if we’re being more precise, that central piece of evidence was a transgression against the woman he loved. “I did love her,“ Chapman says. “I just didn’t love her the way she deserved.“ It’s not as if he thinks about it all the time, though. That would eat away at a man. He just stays busy, polishing and scrubbing, doing what he can to clean up.