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Did he murder his mother?
A review by the Phoenix suggests that the jury made a mistake when it convicted Abdul Raheem
BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

AT 2:20 P.M. on a Thursday afternoon in February 2000, 25-year-old Abdul Raheem (born Demond Chatman) returned home from a workout to the Maywood Street apartment in Roxbury where he lived with his 81-year-old great-aunt, Bessie Hill. He was shocked by what he found: his bedroom had been turned upside-down in the three hours he had been gone. The sheets had been pulled off his bed and a chair lay on the bare mattress, along with some scattered belongings. His possessions ó a stereo, dumbbells, clothes, books ó had been pushed up against the walls. Raheem called to Hill: "Whoís been in my room?" Getting no answer, he walked back through the small apartment, still calling Hill as he stepped around a trash bag and cardboard boxes in the narrow hallway. Through the doorway to the kitchen, he could see the back door to the apartment propped wide open with a brick.

But none of that prepared him for what he saw when he reached Hillís open bedroom doorway. Like his room, Hillís was completely disheveled, with bags and boxes pulled out and opened up, and her belongings strewn all over the normally tidy room. In the back, leaning against the wall beneath a wide-open window, was the naked, bloody corpse of his 41-year-old mother, Mary Chatman. A bullet had put a hole through her left cheek.

Raheem immediately ran back to his bedroom and called 911. An operator talked him into returning to the body, but could not convince him to perform CPR. "Sheís got blood all over her face," Raheem said to the operator, according to a transcript of the call. He wiped the blood away with a sheet, but still could not bring himself to place his mouth over hers, next to the bullet wound. "I canít do it, I canít do it, I canít do it," he babbled into the phone. He then waited for the police to come, "freaking out," as he put it in an interview later, pacing and hitting his hands against the walls.

Thatís Raheemís version. Police and prosecutors constructed a different one, almost from the moment they arrived on the scene. Police responded within three minutes. Less than a half-hour later, Sergeant Detective Daniel Coleman of the Boston Police Departmentís homicide unit arrived at the scene to take charge of the official investigation. Among the possibilities Coleman considered were that the killer had fled through the back door when Raheem arrived, or that Raheem himself was the killer. Coleman didnít talk to the Phoenix, as is his practice in cases still pending appeal. Assistant district attorney Mark Lee, who prosecuted Raheem, insists that Coleman kept an open mind in the early stages of the investigation.

While we canít know with any certainty what Coleman was thinking, his actions suggest that he settled on Raheem as his only suspect within hours. Coleman and Lee say Raheem let Chatman into the home he shared with Hill, Chatmanís aunt. They charge that his pent-up hatred and resentment of his mother finally boiled over that day and that he shot her.

That April Raheem was arrested, and in January 2002, nearly two years after finding the body, Raheem was tried and found guilty of the murder in Suffolk County Superior Court. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

But a Phoenix review of the facts surrounding Chatmanís death, the subsequent investigation, and trial suggests that he may not have killed his mother and that his trial left many important questions unanswered. These conclusions are based on reviews of the transcripts and physical evidence, much of which was provided by Raheemís appellate attorney, Ed Hayden, and ADA Lee. The Phoenix also interviewed more than three dozen people, many of whom police and prosecutors never contacted.

Crucial findings of this review show that:

ē Inconsistencies or perhaps worse appear in the testimony of a key prosecution witness.

ē The crucial shoe print that was used to tie Raheem to the scene is most likely not from his shoe.

ē Three unconnected witnesses say that Mary Chatman went to the Maywood Street apartment before the prosecutionís timetable puts her there, and another witness says that she spoke with the victim after the prosecution claims Raheem killed her.

ē Crime-lab reports and photographs reveal DNA, fingerprints, boot prints, and clothing at the crime scene that do not match or belong to Abdul Raheem.

ē Detectives never collected, tested, or identified potentially exculpatory evidence from near the victimís body.

ē Additional evidence that might have shed more light on the case, including a rape kit and a bag with a wet, blood-stained shirt in it, was lost or destroyed.

A troubled background

Raheem was born on January 11, 1975, 18 days before his motherís 16th birthday. Mary Chatman had recently come to Boston from Georgia, where her parents still live, to stay with her aunt Bessie Hill. Raheemís father was never involved in his upbringing. According to Chatmanís close friend Veronica Denis and others, Raheemís mother continued to go out and live a teenage life, leaving much of the child-rearing to Hill. "My aunt was my mother," Raheem says, referring to Hill.

Nine years later, Chatman became involved with a local pharmacist, and had two daughters with him. With his financial help, she finally moved out of Hillís apartment and into her own place a few blocks away, on Howard Avenue. Raheem moved back and forth between the two, and eventually settled for good with Hill.

Raheem made no secret of his disdain for and resentment of Chatman when he spoke with the Phoenix. By the time of her death, in fact, Raheem no longer referred to her as his mother but as Hillís niece, and Chatman did not tell acquaintances that she had a son. While others, including Raheemís two half-sisters, praise Chatman as loving and generous, he describes her as promiscuous, selfish, childish, sinful, and greedy. He blames her for denying him education, money, and love. He accuses her of physically abusing him, including one incident when she choked him so hard that he couldnít breathe, another when she gave him a "brutal" beating with a broomstick, and another when she "whipped me with a tree branch in front of my friends," he says.

Yet when the Phoenix gathered information for this story, no-one recalled seeing Raheem threaten Mary or behave violently toward her.

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Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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