Black Man on Death Row

Ryan Matthews is a six feet tall, seventeen year old African American at the time of his arrest for the murder of Bridge City, Louisiana, Comeaux grocery store owner Tommy Vanhoose on the evening of April 7, 1997. Ryan Matthews’ story underscores some despicable truth of the death penalty in this country: the execution of juveniles; the execution of the mentally retarded; the execution of innocents; and the racial difference in death penalty sentencing That night, April 17, 1997, a gunman wearing a ski mask walk into the Comeaux's Grocery Store owned and managed by Tommy Vanhoose.

The lone gunman confronted Vanhoose and demand the money at gunpoint. Hesitant to hand over the money, Mr. Vanhoose was shot a number of times by a . 38 caliber revolver to his death. After the murder, the masked gunman rush out of the store while firing his gun and "dived to the open passenger side window" (TIJT, 2004) of the getaway car. A witness, Candice Meza, who was in her car some distance away at the time of the incident, told the police the he saw the gunman raised his masked briefly before running out of the store firing shots towards her.

Another witness, Brent Cheramie, saw a glimpsed of the gunman's face in his rear view mirror and noticed the assailant throw his mask, gloves and shirts. Cheramie picked up the items and later gave it to the police. According to the eyewitness report, the getaway car is similar to a mid-eighties gray Oldsmobile Monte Carlo or a Ford LTD (Reprieve, n. d. ). A few hours after the murder, the police, with the description of the get away car apprehended Ryan Matthews and Travis Hayes driving a gray 1981 Pontiac Grand Prix, twenty minutes away from the scene of the crime (TIJT, 2004).

During the investigation, the witness, Brent Cheramie was brought to the scene and positively identifies Matthews. However, Dale Blanchard who was with Cheramie during the incident and had a better view of the gunman claims that he could not be positive if it was Matthews. In the other part of the investigation, Ryan Matthews picture was shown to Candice Meza, the witness who saw the gunman lifted his mask, made an indecisive identification but emphasized that she is not sure. Some other witnesses who saw the gunman fleeing away described his height between 5’4” and 5’8” tall (TIJT, 2004).

These doubtful identifications by Charemai and Meza are the only evidence that led to the arrest of Mathews. Ryan Matthews, a poor black youth, was presented at trial by an unprepared court appointed lawyer. He faced a predominantly white jury, eleven whites and only one African American. At the time of the trial, the defense had no knowledge of whose tissue samples were found by the police at the assailant’s mask and the outcome of the DNA test that might indisputably exclude Matthews and Travis from the charges.

Furthermore, an automobile expert testifies that the passenger side car window of Travis’ Grand Prix was inoperable and it’s not possible to roll down the window (Reprieve, 2004). On the second day of the trial, the state prosecutor presented evidence until 10pm at night. As expected, the defense after a tiring day ask the court to rest but the Judge handling the case refused and yet ask the prosecution and defense to make their respective closing remarks. After a few hours more in the trial, the defense again moved to rest but once again denied.

At midnight, despite objections, the judge sent the jurors to deliberate. At 4:20am, they had sent a note to the judge saying they cannot reach a verdict but the judge firmly orders them to resume (TIJT, 2004). At 5:am of May 6, 1999, after a non-stop and tiring 14 hours of listening to evidence and deliberating, the jury found Ryan Matthews guilty of murder in the first degree. Two days later, the young and innocent Ryan Matthews was sentence to die. In the seven years since the crime, Ryan Matthews has consistently maintained his innocence. Matthew’s life on death row has been harsh on him.

He suffered from a seizure disorder, which has led to significant cognitive decline due to brain irritation from the seizures resulting in long-term brain damage. Lawyers from the Louisiana Crisis Assistance include Bill Sothern and Clive Stafford Smith became Matthew’s defense team (TIJT, 2004). They work hard for the possible exoneration of Ryan Matthews. With the aim to overturn the conviction and death sentence and with newly discovered evidence, the team succeeded to convince the Louisiana State Supreme Court to order an exoneration hearing.

The team presented the new evidence to not only exonerate their client but also uncover the truth and identify the real murderer. Through the investigation of Matthews defense team, they found Rondell Love, a 5’7”, 145 lbs. (TIJT, 2004), a prison inmate who is serving 20 years for killing a woman in the same area where Vanhoose died, some eight months after the respected grocery proprietor was murdered. By keen examination of Love’s physical appearance, he is more likely the person described by the witness as short and stands between 5’4” to 5’8” (TIJT, 2004).

Furthermore, statements from various people including the declaration filed in court by three prisoners said Love bragged that he murdered Vanhoose. With information vital to solve the case, the lawyers of Matthew began to investigate thoroughly into Rondell Love’s background. They found out that a few months after the murder of Vanhoose in April 1997, about half a mile from Comeaux’s, Love, arrested more than once for drug dealing, committed a manslaughter by slashing the throat of a woman named Chandra Conley (TIJT, 2004).

Finally, the hardworking defense lawyers found a copy of a DNA report reflecting Love’s DNA profile and it matches the DNA found by the police in the gunman’s ski mask. In the turn of events, Matthew’s defense team presented evidence and arguments to the court. Arm with fortified evidence and DNA test results, the defense team filed a motion for re-trial of the murder charges against Ryan Matthew’s. With an acceptable and clear evidence of Matthew’s innocence on their hands, the Jefferson Parish District Attorneys Office permitted the re-trial and did not oppose the request for bond.

Judge Henry Sullivan of the 24th Judicial District permitted a $105,000 bond (TIJT, 2004) for Matthew’s release and home incarceration. The bond was paid partly by his mother Pauline and pledges from sympathetic group. Ryan Matthew is finally out of death row. Family and friends warmly welcome Ryan Matthew in his mother’s modest home in Gretna. While under home incarceration and waiting for a new trial to start, his lawyers did not allow interviews. His defense lawyers are now aiming for the dismissal of the charges.

Sothern, a member of Mathew’s defense team them said, “Our only focus at this point is ending the whole thing so Ryan can move on with his life”. At the new trial, the defense team encountered tough opposition from the District Attorney Paul Connick. He maintains that witnesses saw Matthews take off the mask as he run out of the store, and experts testified that lack of Matthews DNA on the ski mask would not prove that he did not worn the mask (TIJT, 2004).

Dr. Henry Lee, a famous forensic expert who examines the ski mask and shirt found at the scene, told Connick that absence of Matthews DNA in the mask wouldn’t entirely exonerate him but his DNA should also be in the shirt if he really worn it. Connick, realizing the truth of the argument and the fact that Love’s DNA is the one evident said: “we did not have any sufficient evidence to prove the guilt of Ryan Matthews beyond reasonable doubt at this time”. “I felt the only thing to do would be to dismiss the indictment against him and continue to investigate the case”, he added (TIJT, 2004).

Facts of the case: - Ryan Matthews is 6 feet tall. The gunman according to the witness is short between 5’4” to 5’8”. Rondell Love is 5’7” and weight less than 150 pounds. - The get away car is a mid-eighties gray Oldsmobile Monte Carlo or a Ford LTD. Matthews and Hayes were driving a gray 1981 Pontiac Grand Prix. - Hayes car’s passenger side window is not working. Testimony by expert says that it is not possible to roll down the window; therefore, it is also impossible to jump in as witnesses say the gunman did. - DNA test result on ski mask pointing to another person.

The DNA belongs to Rondell Love. - Pressure upon the jury to reach a verdict overtime. A questionable 14 hours non-stop deliberation. With all the above evidence presented during the 1997 trial of Ryan Matthews, why he was still convicted of first-degree murder and why a juvenile like him was sentenced to death. Let us find out what really happen during the investigation. It is true that the prosecutors were aware of the DNA test result taken after the incident in 1997 was not pointing to Ryan Mathews, but they have been reluctant to drop the case because of the confession they got from Travis Hayes.

Hayes, after a long investigation of the police admitted he had driven with Matthews to Comeaux’s, watched him go in and later he heard gun shots and saw Matthews run (TIJT, 2004). This is the only reason why the prosecutors cannot just drop the case based on DNA result. This is just a matter of believing and giving more weight to the confession of a Matthews’s “friend”. What kind of friend will put his friend to death anyway? The prosecution’s suppression of witness Candice Meza’s true identity. The prosecution ignored the credibility of Candice Meza as a critical witness to a murder case.

She was charged for auto theft and drugs and has pending charges for child abuse and prostitution at time of the trial. The U. S. Supreme Court is very clear that a defendant is entitled to all evidence in possession of the state that can be use to help prove his innocence. The state had the completed DNA test for Matthews’s case by the middle of 1998, months before his trial but was suppressed. What are more intriguing and niggling are the facts that Lt. Maggie Snow, the person who investigates Matthews’s case is the same officer who supervised Rondell Love’s manslaughter case.

In addition, it was also prosecuted by the same district attorneys office. We cannot avoid noticing the issue of race flooding the trial. The ratio of 11: 1 (11 white and 1 black). About one third of the population in the country in which the trial was carrying out is from a minority. In Matthews’s case, his county is composed of "30% minority" (Reprieved, n. d. ); a clear indication that the jury was unrepresentative of the racial framework of the country. As with other death penalty cases, no doubt Ryan’s case was infused with racism.

First, there was racism in the process of selecting the jury. Under representation of African Americans on death penalty juries in this county is methodical. A comparable issue was in recent times settled on in the United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Thomas Miller-El’s (DN, 2003). This county was also recently published in the New York Times because during death penalty trials of juveniles and adults, "white prosecutors wore neckties with racist images of nooses on them"(DN, 2003). Still the prison where Ryan lives on death row has a racist history.

The prison, called Angola, is a ex- slave plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River that was named after the country of origin of many of its slaves. Yet today, Angola’s great African American inmates are obligatory to worked the fields of this agricultural estate for a few cents a day while the state of Louisiana received millions from their work (DN, 2003). The trial itself was put under pressure, it lasted only three days. On the second day, the jury was only given a few hours to come up with a verdict. With no rest and sleep, a trial that continues up to 5:00am the next day is undoubtedly questionable.

Finally, after 14 hours of pressured trials and repeated objections, the jury declared Ryan Matthews guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. Assuming that Matthews is guilty of the murder, the death penalty is still not applicable to him. According to the justices of the Supreme Court, the execution of the juveniles would be a violation of the “cruel and unusual” punishment provision of the constitution. Matthews was just 17 when he was arrested.

Furthermore, Matthews with an IQ of 71 (Reprieve, n. d. ) is still ineligible for death penalty under the Atkins v. Virginia decision of the United States Supreme Court banning the execution of the mentally retarded (TJIT, 2004). The case of Ryan Matthews is a classic case of unfair conviction, the very fact that he is a juvenile, mentally insufficient, put on death row for a crime he did not do. He was convicted on the questionable testimony of two eyewitness whose credibility is also in doubt. He is a victim of American criminal justice system. A system that once an innocent person is trapped in the system, it's extremely difficult to get him out (TIJT, 2004).

he apparent racism in the of Jefferson Parish District Court, the District Attorney, the jury, the investigating police officer, and probably the two witnesses. This is also a typical illustration of the shocking consequences that can result when a murderer remains at large because the incorrect person has been incarcerated. If the Rondell Love had been detained in a timely manner for the Vanhoose murder, Chandra Conley's life would have been spared. With a new trial at hand, let us just hope the court and prosecutors in Louisiana will finally do the right thing.