The Justin Chapman case: How a murder prosecution unfolds

UPDATED: The Justin Chapman case serves as an example of repeated breakdowns at nearly every level of the criminal justice system in Georgia. Here are the steps showing how the Chapman case unfolded. This article has now been updated with details about where the system’s breakdowns took place, and the effects they had on the case.

CRIME

An arson fire destroys a duplex, killing an elderly resident in the process.

INVESTIGATION

Fire investigators conclude that the fire was deliberately set, and police quickly narrow the list of possible suspects to one, Justin Wayne Chapman. Chapman lived on one side of the duplex.

ARREST

Chapman is charged in the death of Alice Jackson, 79. He initially has a private attorney, who withdraws. Then he is assigned a public defender, who also withdraws, citing a conflict.

INDICTMENT

A grand jury formally charges Chapman with first-degree arson and felony murder. The state’s “conflict defender,” who has cases all over Georgia, is assigned to represent Chapman.

RED FLAG: The public defender was stretched so thin by travel and workload that she does not have time to prepare properly for the case.   

PRETRIAL

Prosecution and defense exchange information (this is called discovery) and file various pretrial motions designed to bolster their cases.

RED FLAG: Georgia Supreme Court and Telfair County judge found that the prosecutor failed to turn over important evidence that could have helped Chapman’s defense.

DEFENSE INVESTIGATION

The period before the trial can be lengthy – in Chapman’s case it was a year – which gives the defense time to investigate thoroughly and search for flaws in the prosecution’s case.

RED FLAG: The defense investigator does not start in earnest until 13 days before the trial, leaving insufficient time for a complete review of the case files and for interviews of all pertinent witnesses.

TRIAL

Both sides choose a jury and then may offer opening statements. The prosecution calls witnesses who offer evidence that the defendant committed the crime. The defense has the right to “cross-examine” the witnesses and try to cast doubt on their testimony. Then the defense takes over. It may offer witnesses of its own, and the prosecution gets to cross-examine them. When the defense rests, both sides make closing statements, the judge “charges” the jury (explains the law), and sends it away to deliberate. After a weeklong trial, Chapman is found guilty of both counts and sentenced to life in prison.

RED FLAG: The trial exposed a lack of preparation by the defense, as well as questionable testimony and arguments by the prosecution. Evidence and witnesses that would later prove vital to Chapman’s case were never produced or called by the defense.

MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

In the event of a conviction, the defendant often moves for a new trial, and the judge schedules a hearing at which the lawyers present evidence showing why a new trial is or isn’t appropriate. For the appeal phase of his case, Chapman receives a new public defender.

RED FLAG: Chapman’s new defender thought he would win the motion, since the local prosecutor didn’t oppose it. He didn’t prepare evidence or arguments. When the judge balked at granting a new trial, the lawyer wasn’t prepared with a response. Motion denied.

DIRECT APPEAL

The new defender appealed the loss of the motion to the state Supreme Court.

RED FLAG: Because the attorney presented little evidence at the motion hearing, the Supreme Court had little to review and denied the appeal.

WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

Upon the loss of his appeal to the Supreme Court, Chapman’s criminal case was over and he was no longer eligible for representation by a public defender. His next legal step would be to find a private attorney to file a habeas action. (Habeas corpus means literally “you have the body”; that is, please produce this person in a court.) Chapman’s original public defender, working on her own, found a legal team willing to take on Chapman’s case for free.

HABEAS HEARING

This is a civil suit in which the defendant asks a new judge to hear evidence and witnesses on whether he had a fair trial or should receive a new one. The action must be filed in the circuit in which the defendant resides; in this case, Chapman was being held at the Telfair State Prison in McRae, so his new legal team filed in Telfair.

RED FLAG: In the habeas hearing in 2013, the Telfair County court found that important evidence was withheld by the prosecution in Chapman’s case. The judge voided his conviction and ordered a new trial. But the state attorney general appealed that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court, saying it did believe Chapman was wrongly convicted.

SUPREME COURT

Even in cases in which the habeas court orders a new hearing, the state attorney general may object and file an appeal of the decision. This appeal is heard by the state Supreme Court, which then makes the decision of whether the defendant should get a new trial.

Explore more materials from Episode 3.