PHOENIX – An Arizona inmate who has served 44 years of a life sentence for a murder he committed when he was 17 will be released as part of a resolution to reduce his sentence to time served. Ray Chatman (D.O.B. 8/21/1952) was convicted of first degree murder and armed robbery that occurred at a Circle K convenience store in 1970. Under terms of an agreement offered by prosecutors and approved today by the Honorable Bruce Cohen, Chatman’s original conviction will be vacated and he will be eligible for release in exchange for his pleading guilty to one count of second degree murder.
“Our first duty as prosecutors is to seek justice, even if it means revisiting a completed case and changing a previously determined outcome,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. “This particular case illustrates our fulfillment of that duty by agreeing to a resolution that allows the Court to replace a sentence that is no longer constitutionally compliant with one that lawfully and appropriately holds the defendant accountable for his actions,” he added.
On the night of March 7, 1970, two black males entered a Circle K convenience store located at 602 West Baseline Road in Phoenix, one armed with a pistol and the other with a rifle. The two men ordered two clerks and five patrons who were in the store at the time to the floor and demanded the money in the cash drawers. At some point, shots were fired, striking store clerk Kenneth Meiner, who died shortly afterward. The two robbers fled with money from the cash drawer.
Witnesses identified Ray Chatman and Melvin Lee Taylor as suspects. Warrants were issued for their arrests and both subsequently turned themselves in to Phoenix Police. A jury later found Chatman and Taylor guilty of first degree murder, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and two counts of robbery. They were each sentenced to death for the murder and four concurrent terms of 40 years to life for the other counts.
Both Chatman and Taylor, who was 18 at the time of the murder, appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court in 1973 and had their sentences reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Taylor was paroled in 1987 after Governor Bruce Babbitt commuted his sentence. As far as prosecutors are able to determine, Chatman never applied for commutation.
Chatman’s case presented prosecutors with a unique legal “Catch-22.” Under the law in effect at the time of Chatman’s 1970 first degree murder conviction, the only available sentences were death or life without parole. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to death. Then in 2012, the high court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. Thus, a juvenile homicide offender sentenced under the “old code,” like Chatman, would have to be resentenced to a parole-eligible term.
Prosecutors became aware of Chatman’s situation when he recently filed a petition for post-conviction relief and they immediately began working on a possible resolution to his case. The agreement calls for Chatman’s sentence to be deemed complete upon the entry of his guilty plea to second degree murder.