A Floyd County jury found him not guilty, but he’s facing nearly six years in prison because of the law — or, rather, what a former Georgia chief justice characterizes as a failing in the legal system.
Twenty-four-year-old Ramad Ahshad Chatman was found not guilty of armed robbery on May 9, but he still sits in Rogers State Prison because his probation was revoked due to the armed robbery charge.
His initial brush with the legal system came on July 6, 2012, when he pleaded guilty to a felony burglary charge and was sentenced to first-offender probation for five years.
Probation seemed to be going well for the young man until he was arrested again on Nov. 18, 2015, on accusations that he robbed the Lucky Lotto store, 1614 Shorter Ave., on July 9, 2014.
Following his arrest, Superior Court Judge Jack Niedrach revoked his probation. Under the original first-offender sentence, the revocation put his new release date at 2022.
However, a jury acquitted him of the armed robbery charges on May 9.
What that means is that Chatman is currently serving prison time because of his probation revocation for a crime that, by law, he didn’t commit.
“What Judge Niedrach has done to my grandson is an injustice,” said his grandmother, Janice Chatman.
She said that when he heard police were looking for him for the robbery, he turned himself in at the police station because “he wasn’t guilty and refused to be hunted like he was.”
“When my grandson was proven not guilty, he should’ve been let out,” Janice Chatman concluded.
‘The law is clear’
Niedrach declined to comment on the case.
However, retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher of Rome said he blames state law rather than Niedrach for Ramad Chatman’s continued incarceration.
A fair system would have him released, Fletcher said, but if a jury acquitted Chatman, it just means the state didn’t have the evidence to find him guilty of that charge — it has no bearing on the original case.
The federal and state court systems are currently undergoing sentencing reform, but not enough has been done, he continued.
“The law does not always lead to a wise and just conclusion, in my opinion,” Fletcher said. “We can’t afford to continue to lock up more and more people.”
The cost of incarcerating people is going up, the retired justice noted. He said if the state can get people back on the street, working and supporting their families, the justice system and society would be headed in a better direction.
“You want a system — no matter how bad someone may look — you want it to work fairly for everyone involved in it,” Fletcher said. “I’d like to see a statute that would cover this situation so that (release) wouldn’t be discretionary, but mandatory.”
Bryan Johnson and Chris Twyman, attorneys at Cox, Byington, Twyman & Johnson, defended Chatman at separate times during his most recent legal troubles.
Johnson said the Lucky Lotto clerk identified Chatman as the robber during his probation revocation hearing and trial.
However, hard evidence was lacking. He said a weapon was never found and there were some “small inconsistencies” in eyewitness descriptions of Chatman. Also, proceeds from the robbery were never found.
In fact, the clerk identified Chatman as the robber over a year after the robbery — after she saw his picture on Facebook, Johnson said.
But Niedrach followed the law, Johnson said, simply because the level of proof needed to revoke probation is lower than one needed for a conviction.
He said a judge needs to be about 51 percent assured of guilt to revoke probation, while a jury must be about 90 percent assured of guilt to convict someone.
Once the jury found Chatman not guilty of the 2014 robbery, Johnson filed an extraordinary motion for a new probation revocation hearing, hoping to get his client out of prison.
Unfortunately, he said, the motion was denied because there was no new evidence to bring before the judge.
“It was not unexpected,” Johnson continued. “The fact of the matter is, the law is clear.”
It was in Niedrach’s discretion to grant a new hearing, but he was not required to do so because there was nothing new to present.
“I think he followed the law,” Johnson said. “I think it’s unfortunate for Mr. Chatman’s family and I think it’s unfortunate for Mr. Chatman.”
Unlike Fletcher, Johnson doesn’t think there needs to be a hard-line rule to let acquitted probationers out of prison. He said there are enough safeguards in the system, such as the extraordinary motion, for acquitted probationers to get out of prison.
He said a lessening of standards would be bad for the system, because it would leave less finality in criminal cases for the state, for the defendant, for the victim and for the families involved.
In the end, Johnson said, Chatman isn’t being treated any differently than anyone else.