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
Here is the full list of Breakdown episodes.
Justin Chapman was convicted eight years ago of burning down his own house in Bremen, Ga., and killing the elderly woman who lived next door. It was the kind of thoughtless, heartless crime that should land you in prison forever. Unless you didn’t do it. Welcome to “Breakdown: railroad justice in a railroad town.”
BREMEN - Alice Jackson, aging, alone, uncertain, was marooned in the little apartment on Sharp Street.
She was nearing 80, a widow without a car. Neighbors knew her as "Miz Alice," a sweet and gentle woman for whom they sometimes ran errands. She was at least mildly intellectually disabled - sometimes fearful, continually on the phone with the police and her pastor and others.
"She'd always tell you she was praying for you," said Carol Files, who was Jackson's landlord.
Miz Alice's apartment was one-half of a duplex on Sharp that burned at 3 a.m. on a June morning in 2006. The fire was set on the other side of the house, which was empty at the time, but it raced through the structure and set upon Miz Alice in minutes.
She didn't have a chance.
"She must have been terrified," said J. Howard Mills, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, where Jackson had been a member. "She was a sweet, sweet soul."
Miz Alice didn't go in her sleep. Firefighters found her body sprawled under fallen sheetrock near the back door. They theorized that she had awakened and was trying to get out when she was overcome by smoke and flames.
Her next-door neighbor, Justin Chapman, then 27, was convicted of setting the fire that killed Alice Jackson, 79. Chapman had taken his family out of the duplex hours before the fire. Family and friends said Chapman was with them when the house burned. But prosecutors convinced a jury that he stole back to the house in the dark and set it ablaze.
Eight years after his conviction, Chapman has a new defense team that is convinced of his innocence and is fighting to free him.
Chapman's case is at the center of the appeals, but Alice Jackson is the one who lost her life at the beginning of this saga.
She had worked as a seamstress in Bremen, which was built on textiles and railroads. But she had long since retired and was living out her days on Sharp Street.
She was a very nice woman. She would not harm anybody.
Jackson developed a habit of making frequent phone calls to check in on various people. She called the police department just about every day to make sure everything was OK. She called her pastor two or three times a day. She'd even call her landlord few times a week.
Two differing accounts of Jackson's and Chapman's relationship have emerged through testimony at Chapman's trial and subsequent court hearings. Some witnesses have said Chapman, who did not have a phone, intimidated and took advantage of his elderly neighbor so he could use her phone and get money from her. Others have said Chapman and his wife cared for Jackson, giving her rides to the doctor and helping clean her apartment.
Mills, who's been Calvary Baptist's pastor for almost three decades, said Jackson began regularly attending his church around 1998.
"She very seldom ever missed a service," he said. "She was extremely faithful."
Jackson would call Mills and his wife, Judy, two to three times a day.
"When something would come to her mind, she'd just call," Mills said. "We both got to know her very well."
So well, Mills said, he would expect her calls when the weather turned bad, particularly when there was a threat of a tornado. Such forecasts always frightened Miz Alice, he said.
"When the weather got really bad, she'd call and want me to pray for her," he said. "And of course I would."
Jackson often worried about what would become of her, Mills said.
When she was a young woman, Jackson was committed to an institution over concerns she'd had a nervous breakdown, Mills said.
"She was always afraid someone would send her back there," Mills said. "Of course, that was never going to happen. Everyone loved her to death. And I'd say, 'No, Miz Alice, I won't let them do that.' But she did worry about it."
Jackson had one love - playing the piano. Sometimes before church services began on Wednesday nights, she'd sit at the piano and play a few songs, Mills said.
"She was a very nice woman," Mills said. "She would not harm anybody. If she thought she had upset or offended anyone, she'd be the first to apologize to them."
"I miss her," the pastor added. "I still miss her phone calls."