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Did he murder his mother? (continued)

Money problems

Phoenix interviews reveal that Mary Chatman had been facing serious financial trouble at the time of her death. It also appears that she was expecting to receive some money the day she was murdered.

Because the detectives were focusing only on Raheem, their investigation did not pursue this. There was no shortage of people who could have shed light on her money problems, but police did not contact many of those who knew Chatman best. In addition to her best friend Denis, others never approached by police include Geneva Lay, Chatmanís close friend and godmother to her daughters; Andrew Mimms, father to her daughters; her recent ex-boyfriend; her landlord, Doris Ammons; her friend and downstairs neighbor Martha Washington; and her friend and neighbor Waffiya Willis.

"She was always in a pinch, not having enough money," recalls Denis.

"Financially she was having trouble," confirms Chatmanís cousin Debra Groomes. And Waleeta Odware, another friend, says that Chatman would frequently ask for money. "She knew when I got paid," Odware says.

Just five days before the murder, Chatman told Groomes that the heat had been shut off in her Howard Street apartment, and another bill collector was hounding her for an old cellular-phone debt. Groomes says she gave Chatman $250 that day. An ex-boyfriend adds that Chatman needed him to pay for car repairs not long before she died.

But the day before she died, Chatman called her landlord, Doris Ammons, to say that she would have her late February rent money by the next afternoon. "I was supposed to meet her that day at 2:30" to collect the money, Ammons says. "My husband and I sat and waited outside her house." Chatman also told her daughters the morning of her death that she would take them to the mall shopping after school, Kimberly says.

Lee and Rock both say that they never explored potential money issues, which could have pointed to another set of circumstances leading to her death that day. Investigators also never looked into alternative suspects suggested to them. Groomes, for instance, says that in her first conversation with Detective Rock, she told him to investigate Andrew Mimms, the father of Chatmanís daughters. Mimms, whom she had sued for child support years earlier, had recently remarried and was planning to retire with his wife to Florida. Groomes says that Mimms told Chatman he would no longer pay support; Mimms, now in Florida, denies this. He also says that he was never contacted by police.

Police never investigated an ex-boyfriend of Chatmanís, even though it was widely believed by those who knew Chatman that the ex-boyfriend had committed the murder. The rumor of the ex-boyfriendís involvement was so widespread, according to Denis, that he did not attend the memorial service. That ex-boyfriend, who says he did have a relationship with Chatman but denies seeing her that day, says that the police never spoke with him.

A neighborhood store owner recalls that two months after the murder, Detective Coleman told a neighborhood safety group that the victimís son had been arrested ó and that contrary to rumors about an ex-boyfriend, it had been "an open-and-shut case from the start" against Raheem.

How it shook out

"I would have put this as an eight or a nine out of 10 as a strong case," says prosecutor Lee.

He repeatedly says, when presented with questions about the case, that you had to see how Raheem acted. He acted guilty, Lee says, in the 911 call, at the crime scene, under questioning, and at the trial. Coleman and other police officers testified likewise, describing his detached or confused behavior at the crime scene and at police headquarters as signs of guilt.

But during the two months between the murder and his arrest, Raheem never attempted to flee ó even after Coleman told him, two days after the murder, that he was the target of the investigation. In fact, according to police records and testimony, Raheem turned over his clothes at the crime scene, told them about his hidden gun, returned for more questioning, offered a DNA sample, called with his new address when he moved, informed them when he took a new job, and answered every question put to him, all voluntarily.

Detectives apparently never imagined that Raheemís behavior might have been the aftereffect of walking in on his estranged motherís naked corpse, and, further, of being blamed for the murder. They also never discovered that Raheem has been on and off psychotropic medication for schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that can impede normal thought and mood, since he was in middle school, or that he has twice been tested as mildly retarded, all of which has been discovered in school records by Raheemís appellate attorney, Ed Hayden. All this would factor into his guilty-seeming detachment and confusion, according to a counselor who has worked with Raheem.

Raheemís case is on appeal. Hayden is arguing for a retrial not on the basis of innocence, but on the grounds that Raheemís trial attorney, John Bonistalli, should have made a case for Raheemís diminished mental capacity; to that end, he has received funds from the appellate court to have Raheem psychologically evaluated. That is a tactical decision. Hayden, a publicly appointed attorney, considers it extremely unlikely that the court would grant him money to hire an investigator to pursue witnesses ó once a verdict has been declared, the facts of the case are generally presumed to have been decided. Faced with similar financial constraints, Bonistalli made the tactical decision to spend most of his limited resources on a review of the physical evidence, not knowing that an investigator might have discovered witnesses who could repudiate crucial parts of the prosecutorís theory. He obtained $5000 for the DNA review, $2500 for another forensics expert, and just $2000 for an investigator.

Raheem is in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, in Shirley, three years into his mandatory life sentence. "It could be worse," he says. He tries to keep to himself, but he believes that he has an enemy inside, and that the guards are out to get him. He appears still to be bewildered by the trial. He thinks the detectives must have taken his shoes back to the house and planted the prints in the bathroom. He thinks the prosecutor must have made Hill say the things she said.

Raheem has nobody trying to call attention to his case. (In fact, this reporter originally inquired about the case on the assumption that Raheem had killed his mother.) What family he has believe that he killed their beloved relative. His former friends have no way of knowing whether he is innocent. He has no money and no connections. The detective who put him away, Daniel Coleman, has been promoted and now heads the homicide unit, while Raheem, as things now stand, will spend his entire life in prison for a crime that still raises so many unanswered questions ó despite what a jury found.

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com

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Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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