The headlines about the case of Ramad Chatman have been pretty sensational. This one, from the British paper The Independent, was typical: “Black man will spend six years in Georgia prison despite jury finding him ‘not guilty.'” [Note: No quotes needed around “not guilty." They found him not guilty.]
The Huffington Post chimed in similarly: “A Man Is Serving 10 Years In Prison Because of the Crime He Was Acquitted Of.” [Note: Actually serving six years.]
The reasons behind Ramad Chatman’s sentencing, it turns out, are more complicated. The case highlights an important aspect of the American criminal justice system, which is probation. And if you are accused of violating your probation in America, the state need not prove your violation beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard is actually much lower, typically the civil system’s “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning more likely than not. In some places, like Virginia, the standard is even lower: “any cause the court deems sufficient.” There is no jury. Hearsay evidence may be admitted, the exclusionary rule about questionable evidence often does not apply, and rules against self-incrimination also may not apply. In fact, a probationer might even be forced to testify against himself. And so, according to a lengthy law review analysis written by Daniel F. Piar in 2003, “over a quarter of a million Americans are sent to jail or prison each year based on procedures and evidence that could not otherwise be used to incarcerate them.”
And that’s what happened to Ramad Chatman. Even his attorney admitted that “nothing particularly unusual or improper happened in Mr. Chatman’s case,” and because the standard of proof in probation cases is so much lower, Chatman got hammered for a prior conviction.
In January 2012, Chatman and three other young men in Rome, Ga., broke into an apartment one morning and stole a 19-inch flat screen TV, court records show. Chatman, then 20, pleaded guilty to burglary in July 2012, and Superior Court Judge John E. Niedrach sentenced him as a first-offender, placing him on five years probation. No prison sentence was imposed or suspended, and first-offender cases can be dismissed if the defendant completes probation, according to Georgia law.
Chatman’s family said he stayed out of trouble during his probation, paid his $394 restitution, did his community service, and that when he learned in 2015 that he was wanted for armed robbery of a convenience store, he went to the police to clear things up. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery in November 2015.
This arrest was a violation of Chatman’s probation. So in February 2016, Judge Niedrach scheduled a hearing on whether or not to revoke Chatman’s probation. Bryan Thomas Johnson, Chatman’s attorney, said he could have asked the judge to continue the hearing until after the robbery case was tried, but Niedrach likely would have denied that. Chatman still had more than a year of probation left on his burglary conviction, and the state had filed notice that he had allegedly committed a violation. Under Georgia law, Niedrach could revoke Chatman’s probation if Chatman admitted the violation or “the evidence produced at the revocation hearing establishes by a preponderance of the evidence the violation or violations alleged.”
If his probation were revoked, the sentencing range for burglary in Georgia is one to 20 years in prison.
So prosecutors summoned the clerk of a Rome convenience store to testify about the armed robbery. “He jumped the counter, ” she said, according to court transcripts. “And he was just like, ‘Give me the money.’ He put the gun up to my face and like made the little revolver go back.” She stopped working at the store. “I am very shaken up about it,” the woman testified. “I just seen a gun, and I was scared for my life.”
The robber escaped and police had no suspects for a year, when the clerk saw a picture of Chatman on Facebook. She was certain it was him. “I remember the tattoo under his eye vividly,” she testified, though a defense attorney pointed out that she hadn’t mentioned the tattoo to police at the time of the robbery. Rome police brought her an array of photos, and she said she immediately chose Chatman. Chatman did not testify in his own defense.
And that was that. “I find, by a preponderance of the evidence,” the judge said, “that the State has established that the defendant violated” two conditions of probation: not to break the law and not to possess a firearm. “As a result of my finding,” Niedrach continued, “I am going to revoke Mr. Chatman’s first-offender status, adjudicate him guilty, and sentence him to ten years to serve,” dating back to his original sentencing in 2012. That meant more than six years in prison, given four years credit for his probation time.
Floyd County District Attorney Leigh Patterson declined to comment, though she also did not see anything unusual about the case. Johnson said receiving a 10-year sentence for a burglary was also not out of the ordinary. “Floyd County is an area that is tough on crime,” Johnson said, “so no, a 10-year-to-serve sentence on a residential burglary isn’t unusual.”
Chatman still faced trial on his armed robbery and aggravated assault charges for the convenience store hold-up, and court records show he tried to enter an Alford plea to the assault in exchange for prosecutors dropping the robbery charge. (In an Alford plea a defendant doesn’t admit guilt, but does concede prosecutors have enough evidence to secure a conviction.) But Niedrach wouldn’t accept an Alford plea. The case went to trial, the clerk’s testimony was challenged as inconsistent each time she gave it, there was no other corroboration, and Chatman was found not guilty.
But he’d already gotten 10 years for the burglary. His sentence will expire in 2022, though Georgia does have parole.
“It really is a shadow sentencing system,” Piar said in an interview. A former state prosecutor himself, Piar studied probation practices across the nation. “It’s more punishment and a lower standard of proof…I think the whole phenomenon is underreported and people should know about it.”
Still, the lower standard is there because the person has already been found guilty, and was granted probation only through what California calls “an act of clemency and grace,” according to William Raftery of the National Center for State Courts. “That doesn’t mean ‘anything goes,'” Raftery said. “The U.S. Supreme Court set some guideposts with respect to revocation of parole in 1972 and then a year later applied those guideposts to probation. Those rights are to things like right to notice of revocation, right to a hearing, right to present evidence on their own behalf, etc. Neither case set what standard to use. As a result, most states used ‘preponderance of the evidence’ or an even lower standard,” though Colorado requires the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard when the alleged violation is a new crime.
Fiar wrote that placing a convicted defendant on probation “entails risk for the state and the public, since a probationer who betrays this pledge may do so in ways that create a public danger – for instance, by committing new crimes while on probation, or by engaging in ‘additional antisocial acts.’ Where a probationer can no longer justify this risk, ‘the state has a great interest in being able to imprison the probationer without the burden of a new adversary criminal trial,’” the California Supreme Court wrote in establishing its standard.
Still, the impact on individual lives remains, and is what caused a flurry of incomplete stories about Chatman’s case. “While nothing particularly unusual or improper happened in Mr. Chatman’s case,” his lawyer Johnson said, “I think it’s time to start examining the standards we use to take away someone’s freedom. There’s a reason why we require guilt to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In a probation revocation, we may be technically requiring them to serve time on a crime they were previously convicted of or pled guilty to, if the sole basis of the revocation is a new criminal offense, and the state is essentially seeking to incarcerate the defendant because of that new criminal activity. Why shouldn’t it be the same standard of proof?”