“Life Moves So Fast Out Here”: An Interview with Chester Hollman III

In 1993, 23-year-old Chester Hollman III was wrongly convicted of the 1991 murder of Tae Jung Ho in Philadelphia. The state’s case rested entirely on false eyewitness testimony. He spent 28 years in prison before he was finally exonerated and released in July 2019. His story is featured in the new Netflix docuseries The Innocence Files. I reached out to Chester to learn what it was like for him to tell his story to Netflix, and to ask how he’s adjusting to freedom during the pandemic. 

Amanda Knox  

How did you come to be involved in the Netflix series?

Chester Hollman 

I want to say, two years ago maybe, a year and a half ago, I was still incarcerated and I was so focused on getting out. So my lawyer came to see me and we were talking about things we were arguing in regards to the case. Then he had mentioned that Netflix had reached out to him wanting to do a piece on my case. So, you know, I’m sitting in prison. I’d just been there close to 28 years, and that was the furthest thing away from my mind. I said, “I don’t know. What do you think?” And he said, “Well, it can’t hurt. We want to get as much exposure as we can to try to shed light on your case. I think we should do it.” So I more or less just went with it, based off what he said. I didn’t really think about all the particulars surrounding it, where it will lead to, but it happened.

Amanda Knox  

What did you think of the possibility of there being more exposure to your case?

Chester Hollman 

For so many years, everything we said just fell on deaf ears. I thought about it for those days afterwards that I agreed to do it. I told my celly. He’s like, “Man, that’s going to bring a lot of exposure to your case.” That’s the only thing I thought about because for so many years, maybe a decade that we had fought, and no one heard us. I met with the director through a phone call, and he made me feel very comfortable. The rest is history. We started having phone conversations on the regular and behind that, my case was actually picking up momentum with the conviction [integrity] unit. So I was optimistic and more hopeful than I’ve ever been in decades.

Amanda Knox 

I only spent four years in prison, and the entire time, there was a ton of media attention. Some of it was good, and some of it was really, really bad. But at least I wasn’t being forgotten. And that is a terrifying prospect. As the gates closed behind you in prison, people forget about you. Did you feel that way?

Chester Hollman 

Exactly. Oh, yes. For years. My parents spent so much money on attorneys and trying to just try to get someone to listen to us. I think once you’re found guilty and they put you in prison, I didn’t realize it at the time how much of an uphill battle it really is. You think the truth is what the justice system is built on. A lawyer once told me that it’s not about truth or innocence, it’s about who can tell the better story. And I didn’t understand that. And it made for a difficult fight. I just kept believing that the truth is there. All someone has to do is listen to it, and once they see it, I’ll be set free. That went on for so many years. So when Netflix came along, and now to have my story told is just overwhelming for me. It’s only been what, almost nine months I’ve been home now. 

Amanda Knox 

You’re a baby. 

Chester Hollman  

Yeah, you know, I’m growing. We are where we are. And I guess I’m just so grateful. The way things unfolded, after so many years, I just can’t believe it. Even today, I just can’t believe things happened the way they did.

Amanda Knox 

What was it like for you to relive your whole story with the filmmakers?

Chester Hollman  

That was hard because the director or producer came to see me a few times, but most of our talks were over the phone, and you get 15 minute phone calls, and I would line it up where I would try to get two calls, three calls back-to-back depending on the day and what he needed us to talk about. And he would, you know, dive into the case and my personal life and I’m standing on the block phone surrounded by other inmates. It was rough, but I kept looking towards the end game, so to speak. But when you’re going through it and reliving all these things, it brought a little anger as well. I’m telling myself, “I can’t believe people can’t see this.” 

Amanda Knox  

Yeah, it makes you feel like a crazy person. “How am I the only one who sees this?”

Chester Hollman  

Exactly. Exactly. I didn’t understand the justice system. Before, I just thought that it was built on truth. What I’ve learned since then is that, that’s not necessarily the case. So many people don’t think these things happen, or it’s like some type of fluke. I don’t know. But all I know is that, it’s not right. It does happen and I’m living proof of that. 

Amanda Knox 

You mentioned that you had Netflix in the prison. Did you ever see any of the other true crime documentary series that were out there on Netflix?

Chester Hollman

I was actually the one that played the movies. We had an in-house TV station and the supervisor would get the movies throughout the week, and he would give them to me, and they came in a red sleeve that said Netflix. We usually got action movies, comedies. That’s what the guys wanted to see. We never really got series like what you just spoke of.

Amanda Knox  

Old school Netflix. 

Chester Hollman

Right. Right. Whatever he thought we should see, that’s what we saw. He tried to get the latest movies that came out, but anything aside from that, we just didn’t get.

Amanda Knox 

What did the other inmates think when they overheard you telling your story on these phone calls?

Chester Hollman

I tried to keep it as low key as I possibly could. I didn’t want guys to feel like I thought I was better than the next man. It wasn’t until the prison saw the Netflix crew that actually showed up with the cameras and so forth, that’s when it kind of got out there. And all the guards and inmates started coming to me. I tried to remain humble about it, because I didn’t want to rub it in anybody’s face. I didn’t want them to think that I was getting preferential treatment. And not only that, I just didn’t know how it was going to end up, so I didn’t want to put it out there and then have it fizzle out. I just tried to wait to see what’s gonna happen.

Amanda Knox

What was it that the filmmakers said to you that made you feel like they were the right ones to help you tell your story?

Chester Hollman 

Oh, I don’t know. I was very skeptical going in, but getting to know him first, before we actually went and dove into anything about the case, was key. He just seemed really down to earth, honest. And just basically told me he’s wanting to tell my story, and it was a case worth looking into. And I was open to it, naturally, because we hadn’t had that in so many years. Not so much the putting it on film, but just people listening. That was the only thing that I had really wanted for so many years. Whether I got out or not. It was just about someone listening and looking into it, and if you didn’t see it, so be it, but at least take a look. We talked maybe two or three times a week and that went on for months. 

Amanda Knox 

Did any of that process surprise you? Was it surprisingly easy or surprisingly hard?

Chester Hollman  

There were some things that he asked me, especially in regards to my mom and the beginning stages of all this, and that was a rough period. There were things that I more or less blocked out, you know, in terms of some of the interactions with detectives. It definitely wasn’t easy. 

Amanda Knox 

What do you hope viewers will take from watching the series?

Chester Hollman  

Prior to me going to prison, if you were to ask me, I never, ever would have thought that this could happen. I just never would have thought it. A lot of people think that, “Well, they must have did something or they know something or, you know, they were connected somehow. They don’t just put innocent people in prison.” You don’t necessarily have to be involved in any way. It’s the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Amanda Knox

How do you feel about the idea of telling others about your story now today? Do you feel that, with the Netflix series, you’ve done it and now you want to move forward? Or has the Netflix series and participating in it made you feel the desire to continue telling your story now that you’re free?

Chester Hollman

I don’t ever want to seem ungrateful, but at this point, it’s been almost nine months now, and actually tomorrow will make nine months I’ve been home, and I’m just trying to get on with my life. 28 years―I went in when I just turned 21, so it was more than half my life. So, at this point, I’m just trying to salvage whatever is left of it. Telling my story over and over again, I don’t know how much good it does for me, because it’s not easy. You think about all the things you lost along the way. That’s the hard part. I’m willing to do it, but I’ve lost so much and there’s so much I want to do, and I just don’t think I can do that, holding on to that. Now that it’s out there on Netflix, I’m hoping I don’t have to relive it. Maybe if I had more time out here, but it’s still right there, you know? This time last year, I was still sitting there not knowing what the future held.

Amanda Knox   

I hear you. What I would say to that is, you have every right to put this behind you and move on to other things. I think that’s one of those weird catch 22s that exonerees find themselves in, is very often we go in very young, before we’re even a fully developed human being, and then we fight for our innocence for so long that it feels like the only thing that is of value is like, “Okay, I’m an innocent person. Now what?” 

Chester Hollman 

Exactly. That’s what I’m still trying to figure out because it’s been a difficult transition. The way I was released, I didn’t expect it. I was thrown out here. I just spent 25 years in this one particular place, then they told me, “You got one hour. You’re no longer considered an inmate. You’re a civilian now.” So, to come home and be thrust into this life, I’m happy to be here, but I didn’t prepare myself mentally. I’m just still trying to find my way with technology and dealing with people and being unafraid, trying to figure out what it is I want to do at this point. I still haven’t figured that out. I like just sitting around and just observing things and just taking it all in. That’s what I’ve been doing, just trying to take it all in. 

Amanda Knox  

Process. 

Chester Hollman

Exactly.

Amanda Knox 

Well, you’re doing the right thing. I think that a lot of us feel this deep urge to rush into things. I definitely felt like that. You’re like, “I’ve waited so long, what am I waiting for?” But, like, it does take time to really think through where you are, and who you are in this new world that you have access to now. So I think you’re doing the right thing.

Chester Hollman 

I’m definitely trying. I kind of have a few regrets because, in there I had time to prepare for this potential day coming, but I didn’t, because I had kind of lost hope. Because so many years of denials, I just didn’t think it was going to happen. I didn’t see it. So I didn’t really prepare myself. I lived in prison, and I focused on one day at a time in there, and I never really envisioned myself out here. So when I got here, I didn’t have a plan. So now I’m trying to do this on the fly. That’s the hard part, trying to do it on the fly.

Amanda Knox

What are some of the challenges that you’re facing? And what kinds of things have you learned over the past nine months?

Chester Hollman 

First of all, trying to come to terms that my mom’s not here. The first day I got home and just realized that she wasn’t there, because the night I left the house, she was there, and I return 28 years later and she’s not there. So dealing with that has been hard. And the changes in the neighborhood, technology, of course, I’m still figuring that out. I still haven’t figured this phone out. People say it takes time and I understand that, but at same time, I had time to get an idea of what I wanted to do and I didn’t do it. Prior to going to prison, I actually wanted to be in law enforcement. That was my only aspiration growing up, so when I got out, I had no other thought or focus. I do a lot of drawing. So, I don’t know. I’m just trying to figure it all out and who I am as a person. I just want people to see me for who I am. I’m talking about my family. When I first came out, they thought I was still the same kid they knew prior to me going in, and I’m not that same person. When you lose so much, it changes you. I think I’m just more grateful for little things that I think people take out here for granted, walking down the sidewalk or walking into grass with your shoes off. These things that we didn’t do for so many years. I move very slow, because I try to take everything in, and sometimes people don’t understand that. I just feel very, I don’t know, humbled to be back out here. Because I really, truly, truly, truly believed that I was going to die in there. I watched myself just get older and older and older and it just reached a point where I was like, it’s not gonna happen. 

Amanda Knox  

I’m really, really glad to hear that you’re hanging in there and, you know, that uncertainty is real. And I think that for the first time with quarantine, people are experiencing that.

Chester Hollman  

Yes, yes, yes. I mean, it’s a different type of lockdown, but it gives people time to reflect. Life moves so fast out here. So I think it just slows things down and causes people to reflect and see what’s important. I know that’s what I’m doing.