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Did he murder his mother? (continued)

The theory of the case

According to the theory Lee eventually presented to the jury, Raheem killed Chatman while his great-aunt, Bessie Hill, sat in her bedroom in the small apartment, with the door open, unaware. Thatís because Hill claimed to have been home all day until 2 p.m., while Chatman must have died, according to the EMTsí description of the body, no later than 12:30.

Further complicating matters, Lee had to posit that at some point after killing his mother, Raheem left the house to dispose of the murder weapon, the bullet and cartridge, and Chatmanís clothes, all of which were never found.

Prosecutor Lee presented the following theory to the jury: Chatman arrived at 20 Maywood Street between 10:30 and 11:30 on the morning of the murder. Hill was in the back of the house and did not hear as Raheem opened the door, took Chatman into his bedroom, and shot her. Raheem stripped his motherís body, and left the house with her bloody clothes (including a heavy winter coat), the gun, the spent bullet, the cartridge, and anything else that got splattered. He disposed of them somewhere and then returned to the apartment and waited, hoping for Hill to leave. When she did, at 2 p.m., he dragged the naked, stiffening, 220-pound body across old hardwood floors to Hillís room (without leaving any marks, cuts, or bruises on her body), attempted to dump it out the window but failed, filled a bucket and mopped up the blood from his bedroom and the hallway, washed the blood off himself, changed into clean clothes, pulled out and opened up a bunch of bags and boxes in Hillís bedroom, and moved furniture around in the kitchen ó all by 2:25 p.m. At that time, still alone in the apartment, he suddenly abandoned the clean-up effort, supposedly because he knew Hill was returning ó without even wiping away blood stains from his own bedroom wall ó and called 911.

Although Hill was apparently ó by the prosecutionís own theory ó in the apartment when the murder took place, and Raheem said that he heard Hill and his mother talking in the back of the apartment when he left that morning, detectives took very little interest in questioning her. Two detectives spoke with her briefly a few hours after the body was found, but left when she said she was too tired to talk. When she contacted the police later that evening, they declined to send someone to interview her. Aside from briefly being asked to identify items from photographs, she wasnít interviewed again until Lee spoke with her just before she gave her grand-jury testimony two months later.

Hillís testimony to the grand jury and later in court is full of inconsistencies and raises unanswered questions. Itís hard for an observer to figure out with any certainty why she had trouble telling a consistent and coherent story. She very possibly feared for her own safety ó particularly if she had in fact been in the apartment and witnessed the shooting. In addition, she told conflicting stories to different people (including the Phoenix), and she repeatedly changed her testimony in ways that fit the prosecutionís version of events, and to make Raheem appear guilty.

For example, she originally told the grand jury about a conversation on the day of the murder in which Raheem asked where the mop and bucket were, so he could clean his room later. She said the conversation took place before eight in the morning, at the open door to his bedroom. But if that was correct, it would undercut Leeís theory, that Raheem killed Chatman between 10:30 and 11:30 and then went looking for the mop to clean the blood. At the trial Hill changed those details, saying that the conversation took place at around 11:30 a.m., not before 8 a.m., and in her bedroom, not his.

Hill also claimed that she left the house at 2 p.m. to mail her rent payment, but her landlordís records show that she never sent a payment that month.

Also troubling are statements that Hill made about the times the two young boys in the house came home from school. The boys were dropped off at the same time every day ó the same time the boys and their mother told detectives they came home that afternoon. The nine-year-old was dropped off at 3:40 p.m.; the eight-year-old at 4 p.m. These were important times for Hill ó she was on the porch at these times every day; one of the boys is developmentally disabled, and was not allowed off the bus if Hill was not on the porch.

But despite the fixity of this daily ritual, Hill testified at trial that both boys were normally dropped off between 2:30 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. She not only gave the wrong times at the trial, two years later; she gave them to the grand jury in April of 2000, during the same school year, while still taking care of the children.

Confusion over the time allowed the prosecution to argue that Hillís impending return prompted Raheem to abruptly halt his clean-up effort at 2:25 p.m., when he could have continued cleaning undisturbed. In fact, the boys were not due home for well over an hour when Raheem placed the call to 911.

Witnesses missed

As presented in court, the prosecution depends heavily on Mary Chatman arriving at 20 Maywood after 10:30. But people interviewed by the Phoenix indicate that Maryís first visit to Hillís apartment was at 9:00 a.m.

A neighbor of Hillís says that Chatmanís car was on the street at 9 a.m., when she left for work. Martin Willis, a 32-year-old who lived across the street from Chatman on Howard Avenue, says he saw her leaving her house (three blocks from Hillís) just before 9 a.m. on the morning she died. Willis says he was returning from driving his girlfriend to her workplace on Mass Ave for her nine-to-five shift, and saw Chatman heading out; he offered her a ride to Hillís house, but she declined and took her own car. "She was her happy, cheerful self," he recalls.

Chatmanís friend Waleeta Odware says that they spoke on the phone that morning around 8:30 a.m., at which time Chatman complained that she had been hoping to start her laundry before leaving for Project Hope, but that Hill had just called and asked her to come over first. In fact, Chatman appears to have done several loads of laundry at her house over the course of the morning ó some of which ended up in Hillís apartment, as John Bonistalli, Raheemís trial lawyer, pointed out during the trial. Chatmanís daughter Kimberly tells the Phoenix that she found additional loads of laundry in both the washer and dryer at their house. In any event, it appears that Chatman might have traveled back and forth between the two houses several times that morning, beginning at 9 a.m.

Another witness suggests that Chatman was alive and well, and at her own apartment, after Raheem was seen leaving his home at 11:30. The prosecution believes that Raheem had already committed the murder by then, and was leaving to hide the evidence. Hill says that Raheem left the house at around that time. Robert Washington, an independent street witness, told police that he saw Raheem leave the house and head toward the bus stop at 11:30 a.m. (Raheem himself told police that he believed he left for his workout between 10 and 11 a.m.)

But Veronica Denis, described by many as Chatmanís best friend, insists in a Phoenix interview that she called Chatman at home and spoke with her at noon. Denis, who believes that Raheem killed her friend, was unaware, prior to her conversation with the Phoenix, that the prosecution claimed Mary died before then. Police never contacted Denis, but Lee confirms that Denis approached the DAís victim-witness advocate during the trial and told him about her telephone call. She was not taken seriously because she claimed that the Holy Spirit moved her to make the phone call.

If Denis is correct (a spokesperson for her then-employer, Qwest Diagnostics, says the company could check in their phone logs if subpoenaed; neither defense counsel nor the police ever followed this potential lead), Chatman was alive at her house at noon, after Raheem was seen leaving Maywood Street.

It would appear, then, that after making several trips between the Maywood and Howard Street houses, Mary returned to Maywood Street for the final time after speaking with Denis at noon ó after Raheem had left to go exercising. Had these witnesses testified, the prosecutionís theory would have been called into serious question.

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Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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