DNA Clears Louisiana Man on Death Row, Lawyer Says

The new York Times, Apr. 26, 2003

NEW ORLEANS, April 21 — A skin cell, and a little spit, could save Ryan Matthews from Louisiana’s death row, and shift the blame for his crime to a man across the prison yard.

On April 7, 1997, a masked gunman shot Tommy Vanhoose to death in the store he owned in Bridge City, a little riverside place in the shadow of the Huey P. Long Bridge. Eight months later, and half a mile away, a killer slashed the throat of Chandra Conley. Her 5-year-old son found her dead in a pool of blood.


The death penalty is a barbaric human rights violation, rejected by a growing number of civilized countries.

America’s severely flawed ‘justice system’ has a lengthy record of wrongful convictions.

100+ innocent people have been rescued from death row.

The USA is among the very few countries that executes the mentally ill or child offenders.

The State of Louisiana tried and convicted Mr. Matthews in the first killing, which took place when he was 17. Rondell Love, a convicted drug dealer, was found guilty in the second. Both men went to the prison farm in Angola, and both cases were closed.

But, Mr. Matthews’s lawyers say, DNA tests of saliva and a skin cell found on the ski mask worn by Mr. Vanhoose’s killer raise the question of whether investigators should have been searching for two killers, or only one.

This morning, lawyers for Mr. Matthews filed that evidence with the Louisiana Supreme Court, saying it not only proved their client was not guilty but also revealed the real killer. The DNA on the mask was not Mr. Matthews’s, but matched that of the man who slashed Ms. Conley’s throat, said Billy Sothern, a lawyer for Mr. Matthews. That killer, Mr. Love, is not on death row. He is serving a 20-year sentence at Angola for Ms. Conley’s death.

Mr. Sothern asked the court for a hearing on whether Mr. Matthews should be exonerated.

In an interview, he said that the state had sent an innocent man to prison on shaky eyewitness accounts and implausible evidence, and that it had let the real killer go free long enough to kill one more time.

“It’s our feeling that if the police had gotten the right man, then Chandra would still be here,” said Mr. Sothern.

Mr. Sothern first became involved in the case last year as an appeals lawyer, when he filed a motion citing his client’s borderline mental retardation. But soon he began to hear that Mr. Love had bragged about killing Mr. Vanhoose, he said.

He sought out Mr. Love’s trial record and learned that DNA tests had been done to prove that blood on Mr. Love’s shoes was Ms. Conley’s, not Mr. Love’s. Mr. Sothern then compared the DNA report on Mr. Love’s blood with the DNA report on the mask. It matched, he said.

District Attorney Paul Connick of Jefferson Parish said he found the new evidence worth considering.

“Of course we take this very seriously,” Mr. Connick said. “The defense has done their investigation and we will do ours”

Mr. Love could not be reached for comment. He apparently does not have a lawyer, and prison officials would not give a message to him. The lawyer who represented him at his trial could not be reached for comment. An aunt of Mr. Love, who would not left her name be used, refused to talk about the case, except to say, “They already got somebody for that murder.”

Pauline Matthews, Mr. Matthews’s mother, said she had never believed that her son was guilty.

“Do you want to solve a crime with anybody, just to say that you solved it?” she said. “If this is what’s happening with other people, it needs to stop. The system should be better.”

But Mr. Vanhoose’s son, Rocky, said no amount of DNA evidence on the mask would change his mind.

“Anybody could have worn that,” said Mr. Vanhoose, 25, who was just out of high school when his father was killed. “When you try on jeans at the store, you think you’re the only person that’s ever put them on?”

By April 1997, Ryan Matthews had been causing his mother trouble with minor brushes with the law for two years, selling drugs and going for joy rides, but never doing anything violent, his mother said.

On April 7, witnesses saw a masked man walk into Mr. Vanhoose’s store and demand money at gunpoint. Mr. Vanhoose refused and the gunman shot him several times, then ran out of the store, firing shots at the witnesses as he ran.

A large American-made getaway car, primer gray in color, was idling around the corner. The gunman dived into the car through the open passenger window, and the driver pulled away.

Later that night, the police stopped a primer-gray 1981 Pontiac Grande Prix and arrested Ryan Matthews and Travis Hayes, both 17 and both described as being borderline mentally retarded. Mr. Hayes was behind the wheel.

After hours of questioning, Mr. Hayes told the police that he had gone with Mr. Matthews to the store but that he had not known he was planning a robbery. Mr. Matthews never confessed.

One detail in court records puzzled Mr. Sothern after he took the case. Witnesses said the masked gunman had dived through the open car window, but the window on the Grand Prix the police believed was the getaway car had been stuck closed for as long as anyone could remember.

The eyewitness testimony also seemed unreliable to Mr. Sothern, he said. One witness said he had pulled his car in front of the robber’s car and fishtailed for a while so it could not get past him. The witness said that as he was dodging bullets from the gunman, he saw the gunman’s face clearly in the rearview mirror. Another witness said she had seen Mr. Matthews briefly pull up the mask in the store while she was in the parking lot.

There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Matthews to the murder. DNA testing of the mask, which had been discarded by the road near the store, conclusively excluded both Mr. Matthews and Mr. Hayes.

After all the evidence was submitted, at 10 p.m. on the third day of the murder trial in 1999, the judge ordered the closing arguments to be given, despite the late hour and then, despite objections, sent the jury out to deliberate at midnight, Mr. Sothern said.

At 4:20 a.m., the jurors sent a note saying that they had not yet come to a verdict, but the judge ordered them to continue. At 5 a.m., they found Mr. Matthews guilty of murder.

Two days later, Mr. Matthews was sentenced to die. The judge told him not to feel sorry for himself, and that he was responsible for his problems.

Mr. Hayes had earlier been sentenced to life in Angola, and his case is on appeal.

“Jefferson Parish law enforcement has failed Ryan Matthews,” said Mr. Sothern, who is handling the case with a colleague, Clive Stafford Smith.

There have been 107 death row exonerations in the country since 1973, only 3 of which have involved juveniles. During that period Louisiana has had five exonerations, two of which have involved juveniles.

“This case answers the question, `What’s wrong with the death penalty?’ ” Mr. Sothern said. “It’s the death penalty trifecta: a juvenile, who’s mentally retarded, and in fact innocent.”

Outside the courthouse this morning, Mr. Matthews’s mother was cautious. “Just to know this evidence is coming out, my prayers have been answered,” she said. “For some people it takes 20 or 30 years.”

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