The jury deliberated for 40 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. And at 27 years old, Justin Chapman was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for 30 years.
The investigation was also brief, and the trial lasted only a few days. It was swift justice in a quiet little town that is unused to murder: Bremen, Ga., population 6,300, lies about 50 miles west of Atlanta near the Alabama line.
The prosecutor remains certain to this day that he got the right man, and Chapman may well be guilty of the crime that killed Alice Jackson, 79. But his case is also an example of repeated breakdowns at nearly every level of the criminal justice system in Georgia.
Chapman’s public defender wasn’t ready for trial, having had almost no time to investigate the case or prepare a defense. The key witnesses against Chapman provided devastating testimony that may or may not have been true – and had a motive for doing so. A second public defender botched Chapman’s appeal.
Bill Rankin, the AJC’s senior legal affairs writer, has taken a deep dive into the case, sifting through thousands of pages of court transcripts and other legal documents and interviewing dozens of people.
Having covered trials and lawyers and courts for more than 20 years, Rankin has a close acquaintance with the state’s public defender system and its practitioners. He knows how police and prosecutors try to piece together a case, and how defense attorneys try to unravel that work. And in the Chapman case, he has documented the near collapse of the justice system.
Rankin narrates the seven-part podcast, which was inspired by the enormously popular “Serial” podcast of 2014, by “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig. As Rankin remarks in Episode 1: “Now, obviously, I’m no Sarah Koenig. I’m used to writing stories, not speaking them. But I do have an important story to tell you.”
Rankin has traveled repeatedly to Bremen and will take you there in his podcast and on the ajcbreakdown.com website. You’ll find a sleepy city crisscrossed by railroad tracks, where the lonesome thunder of freight trains fractures the stillness dozens of times a day.
Join us for Breakdown: railroad justice in a railroad town.
Reporter: Bill Rankin
Writers: Bill Rankin and Richard Halicks
Editors: Richard Halicks and Pete Corson
Video: Hyosub Shin and Ryon Horne
Photography: Hyosub Shin and Bill Rankin
Music: Bo Emerson
Music production by Billy Gewin and Cave Cricket Studio
Maps and timeline: Emily Merwin
AJC content team: Sandra Brown, Pete Corson, Richard Halicks, Ana Santos and Bill Rankin
AJC technical team: Emily Merwin, Matt Sabath and Ashlyn Still
Project advisers: Amy Chown, Cynthia Dubose, Laura Inman, Shawn McIntosh, Drue Miller, Monica Richardson, Bert Roughton and Katie Tankersley
Social media director: Michelle Kerr
Podcast adviser: Susanna Capelouto
Recording production: CO3 Sound Atlanta
Website design and development: CSE