“I’m not letting yesterday ruin today or tomorrow”: An Interview with Clay Chabot

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

In 1986, 27-year-old Clay Chabot was wrongly convicted of a rape and murder and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-two years later, newly tested DNA evidence excluded Chabot and identified the real rapist and murderer. Chabot’s conviction was vacated, but instead of acknowledging the mistake, prosecutors were only willing to offer him a deal: plead guilty and be sentenced to time served. Chabot, afraid he might be wrongly convicted yet again, took the deal. 

Today, Chabot lives in Florida and operates a small business that has been directly impacted by quarantine.

Amanda Knox 

Could you briefly describe the story of your wrongful conviction?

Clay Chabot  

I lived in Texas in 1984 right after I got out of the Navy and my wife’s brother one day came over and spent the evening and left early in the morning. He came back several hours later, brought a gun back that he’d taken from his sister’s purse, and told me when he went over to this guy’s house, he heard screams and gunshots. Said he got scared and left. And he gave the gun back. Well, late that evening, I heard my friend’s wife had been murdered. I decided to call the police and tell them, “Look, this guy’s got some information that might be able to help.” So they talked to me and I gave them the gun. They went and saw him and found blood on his clothes, stolen merchandise, pawn tickets, and positively identified his car at the scene of the crime. They arrested him. He turned around and told them that I borrowed his car, gave him the stolen merchandise, and he had nothing to do with it. So they arrested me. Long story short is, they came to me and said, “Look, we don’t think you actually committed the crime, but we need somebody to testify. If you’ll do that, we’ll let it go.” I said, “Man, I can’t do that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what this guy did. I told you everything I know.” I believed in the American justice system. Never been in trouble before. Just got out of the military. So they went to him with the same deal and he stood on the stand and said, “We were both there. He pulled the trigger.” And they give me a life sentence and they let him go. So, I fought, fought, fought for 22 years until finally DNA, finally found it. Ran it. Turned out that he was the one that raped the girl. So they arrested him and they let me go, but they made me take a deal. At first they were going to exonerate me. And then the new prosecutor looked over the case and said, “I just don’t believe he had nothing to do with it.” So, they pressured me for another two years until they made me fold on a deal. 

Amanda Knox  

What was this new prosecutor’s deal? He just had some gut feeling? 

Clay Chabot 

Yeah, I think that was basically it. Here’s the thing. I used to ride Harley’s, carried guns, dealt drugs, looked like Charles Manson then. Did not have a good reputation. I had this fake front, Amanda, that I put on to avoid trouble, you know? In the world that I dealt in, it was a benefit, you know? 

Amanda Knox 

Sure. 

Clay Chabot 

And then the big thing was, they gave us polygraphs. I couldn’t pass. I mean, to me, it was so shocking that you asked me, “Did you commit the murder?” My nerves go to the moon. They gave him one, he passed. And yet, here we go, 20 years later and prove scientifically with DNA testing that he committed the crime. He passed the polygraph. That alone should prove that polygraphs are useless.

Amanda Knox  

Absolutely. I agree. I mean, it’s not evidence. Another thing that doesn’t totally jive is, if she genuinely thought that you were involved in this brutal rape and murder, why would she offer you a plea deal for time served? 

Clay Chabot

My original prosecutor broke the law to convict me. I could have sued for an untold amount, $42 million or so. I don’t know if it was a matter of money, the fact that she’s really just didn’t believe me. Probably a number of factors.

Amanda Knox

Is there any hope for you of being exonerated in the future?

Clay Chabot 

There actually is additional DNA that the judge refused to let us have tested. We could have this other DNA tested, and if we were to get a hit on it, and then go back and see if we could get the case opened back up, but you know, there’s no guarantee that the prosecutors in place now wouldn’t possibly still take that same stance. I would potentially open myself up to being prosecuted again. And so really, it comes down to the same question I had when I took the deal. And that was luck. My dream was for exoneration, freedom, and compensation. Well, I didn’t get the exoneration, and I didn’t get the compensation, but I got the freedom. Do I really want to risk my freedom and go through all that headache and the hassle and the stress and the strain of trying to open this up? I’m old. I don’t have a lot longer to live anyway. So by the time I get through that, I’d die the next day.

Amanda Knox  

The stress of the whole situation would probably take a few years of your life.

Clay Chabot

It’s not worth it.

Amanda Knox

So your brother-in-law was the one who committed this crime. Your second wife’s brother. Do you have any relationship with either of them to this day?

Clay Chabot 

Well, he got arrested and thrown in prison. Convicted to life. And he died just a few years later. My ex wife, Sandy, my son Harley’s mother, he was born five months before I went to prison. So I actually have no contact with her directly. I just don’t see any purpose. But I have contact with my son, and he keeps me up on how his mother’s doing. 

Amanda Knox

I feel very fortunate to not be in prison right now. Can you describe what the health care situation was like in the prison that you were in?

Clay Chabot 

Healthcare in the Texas prison system. Oh, boy. Now, I don’t know how much you know about the building tender system back then. The Texas prison system used to be run by inmates. So when I first got there, medical care was, if your arm hurt, they’ll just punch you in the head and you’ll worry less about the arm. I was fortunate. I’m a veteran, and I’m a disabled vet. So they actually used to transport me to a VA hospital. And that’s where I would get care. Not for everything. Overall, you got a problem, you’re getting a couple of aspirin, you know? And I’ll jump ahead, because I think something you might ask is whether or not this pandemic thing has had any effect on me. When they started talking about locking us down, originally I was opposed to it. I bristled and said, “Wait a minute, man. No.” But then I came to recognize the severity of it.

Amanda Knox

Have you ever felt this disoriented in the world before?

Clay Chabot  

I don’t know if disoriented is the right word. For me, it’s dismay. It’s a disappointment. It’s some sadness, I guess. Maybe I can give you this brief example. I remember exactly where I was for 9/11. I was in the back of the commissary truck at the LS unit in Texas, and my father had just died about seven, eight months earlier. And I remember thinking to myself, I’m glad he wasn’t alive to see that, because he was born in the 30s, and I know he’d already seen a lot of changes in the world. And over time, I’m 60. So now I have that same perspective on the world and changes. I never would have thought I’d seen this type of action. This is not what it was when I was growing up. The only peace I get out of this is thinking I’m not going to be here a whole lot longer to go through it. And that’s just the way I see it.

Amanda Knox  

How was your reintegration back into society?

Clay Chabot 

Well, easy, actually. Other than me walking into stores, and I had this little plastic card that you step up to pay for something, right? And I’d walk up, give him the card, and they pointed to this little box on the left, and I’m looking at it. I don’t even know what it is. And there’s people lining up behind me trying to pay for this stuff. So I just pull out cash. So it took me a little while for that, going into stores or the mall, took me just a little bit because the colors, the sounds, the crowds. But other than that, really, I jumped right back in. I built my own business within six months, bought my own house within two years.

Amanda Knox 

What do you do today?

Clay Chabot 

I like to call it a fire prevention company. But it’s basically just cleaning dryer vents. I work very few hours a week and I make pretty good money. And that’s just it. All my friends tell me, “Dude, you could do a lot more.” Yeah, yeah, I could. But what I’ve been through in my life, I don’t want to work 40 hours a week. I can lay on my pool deck and ride my Harley, my jet skis, and I try to just enjoy life. 

Amanda Knox 

Has your business been impacted by COVID?

Clay Chabot  

Yes, absolutely. It slowed down for about four weeks and it’s still a little slow right now. I have to go into the homes, and people don’t want you in their homes. And then obviously, financially, a lot of people don’t have the auxiliary funds to do something like that right now. Electric needs to be on before they have to worry about the dryer burning up.

Amanda Knox 

Right.

Clay Chabot 

My fiancé works from home too, and fortunately, I’ve got a great sense of humor, Amanda, and that’s how I got through those years of prison, really, was a big sense of humor. So we’ve really had no difficulty with her and I being home together more often than we would if she was still going to her office. 

Amanda Knox 

So it’s just kind of the general dismay in the air that’s getting to you right now?

Clay Chabot  

Mainly it’s just seeing how much this is shutting down the U.S. 

Amanda Knox 

How are you coping?

Clay Chabot 

I just adjust, Amanda. I just do. I was born in ’59. My parents broke up when I was about eight. Went on my own at about 15. Got married, divorced, joined the military. I was on a ship. I got really used to being around 5000 other guys.

Amanda Knox 

Nowhere to go.

Clay Chabot 

Nowhere to go. What can I say? I’m watching more TV than I used to. Less work, more time. But again my sense of humor, and my perspective. When I was at my lowest and darkest times, what pulled me out was not looking to see how much better things could be, but how much worse they could be. I looked around and said to myself, “Clay, there’s kids born every day crippled, blind, disfigured. I can still see, walk, talk, feel.” I’ve retrained my mind to do that. I wake up singing. Amanda. My fiance laughs because I’ll be laying there, she says, “You were snoring three seconds ago,” and I’ll wake up, you know, “Better not mess with the U.S., man.” I’m like this: I’m not letting yesterday ruin today or tomorrow. It’s as simple as that. I know it’s easier said than done. But with effort, people can really move their perspective. That’s one thing I try to get some of the people I talk to, is like, “Look, you gotta let it go, you gotta let it go. You can’t hold on to that, or you’re just ruining today and tomorrow. And then they win all of it, you know?” 

Amanda Knox 

Do you have any advice for people who are struggling with quarantine?

Clay Chabot  

If you’ve always, you know, didn’t have time to read a book or learn how to play guitar or plant a small garden or something, man, find something. Just like we did inside. I don’t know about you, but in there, I would write a list. And it might be: study for my classes, or write a letter, small things. And at the end of the day, if you could at least knock off one of those, you get some small sense of accomplishment, and it gives you some sense of self worth. So I would say, try to find something that gives you that sense of accomplishment.