Second chance granted: Decades after brutal killing, 'we're not defined by past'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Melissa Chapman says she was caught up in a toxic relationship that spurred a gruesome killing in Genesee County, landing her in prison at age 18. 

Chapman and her boyfriend, Robert Goodyear, were convicted of first-degree murder and felony murder in the Dec. 20, 1987, death of Michael Gaines. He'd been shot twice in the head by Goodyear inside a truck in a Meijer parking lot. His body was dumped in a field and later set on fire. 

Melissa Chapman speaks about how Chance for Life, a program that offers support for ex-offenders. as the program has changed her life after spending 31 years in prison.

Chapman recently sat down with The News for her first in-person interview since being released in March after spending 31 years behind bars. 

She said she'd left home as a teenager, thinking she was a "free spirit" and was "going to make it on my own with no knowledgeable skills to help me."

Instead, she said, she wound up in a controlling relationship and started living a life of crime.

"I'm very remorseful about what happened because that stays with you forever," said Chapman, now 50. "You never let that go."

►Read our entire special report: Second chance granted

After a June 28, 2018, commutation hearing, the state's parole board determined Chapman was "not a risk" and recommended to then-Gov. Rick Snyder that her sentence be commuted. He signed off on her commutation last winter. 

Oakland County Circuit Judge Richard B. Yuille, in a letter to the parole board last spring, wrote that he wasn’t the presiding judge during Chapman's trial or sentencing, but that the facts of the case were “particularly disturbing” and the defendants “clearly earned the sentences” they’d been serving. 

He did not weigh in on whether commutation was appropriate. He only urged the parole board to take great care in reviewing the facts. 

Prosecutors argued at trial that Chapman and Goodyear were living in a garage and doing drugs at the time of the murder and that Chapman chose “a deviant lifestyle that culminated in her very real orchestration of and participation in the murder of Michael Gaines.”

Chapman denied there was ever a conspiracy to murder the victim, according to Genesee County court transcripts. Her position was she had no knowledge that Goodyear was going to shoot Gaines.

Melissa Chapman

Chapman told The News that the killing unfolded after Goodyear had a "jealous episode" when Gaines made a pass at her. Chapman admitted she helped Goodyear dispose of Gaines' body but said that her boyfriend had threatened to kill her and her family if she didn't. 

Chapman said she’d met Goodyear in the summer of 1987 through his sister and he became abusive within the first week. When a friend of Goodyear’s complimented her, Goodyear shoved her to the ground. But she forgave him, she testified during the hearing last summer.  

Chapman said as a teen she “acted out for attention” and that it made her feel “more wanted.”

At the time, Chapman and Goodyear were unemployed. She was hooked on weed, caffeine pills and alcohol and the pair stole nearly a dozen cars and broke into as many houses to support their habits. 

But Goodyear also had a violent side, she said. He threatened her life, would handcuff her and put a gun to her head. At times, he also sexually assaulted her and threatened the lives of her parents, she testified at the hearing. 

Court records reviewed by The News revealed Goodyear's jealousy and fear that Gaines would "take Melissa away from him." 

Goodyear admitted to beating Chapman during arguments "quite a few times." At trial, Goodyear testified he had lifelong problems with his temper and began counseling for it at age 4.

Chapman, who'd previously applied for a commutation a handful of other times, said she believes she finally was approved because she's accepted her role in the murder, rather than viewing herself as a victim.

"I think we all make decisions that change factors in things," she told The News. 

John Potbury, a deputy chief assistant prosecutor for Genesee County, said the office maintains the evidence showed Chapman was responsible for the crime, as charged, and a jury agreed.

"We do feel she was liable for the crime and indeed was found guilty, and that's why we charged her," he said. "Our position is that the conviction should stand as should the sentence."

Chapman, who earned an associate's degree in arts and sciences and certifications in legal writing, graphic arts and as a yoga instructor while in prison, has returned home with relatives. She's eager for a second chance in life. 

"No one wants this to haunt the rest of our lives. No one wants to be labeled with this," said Chapman, urging that she and others be viewed for what they have to offer now, not the crimes they committed.  

"Because we're not defined by our past," she said. "We're defined by our choices today."