more than five years, Ryan Matthews sat in his 9ft by 6ft
prison cell for 23 hours out of 24, contemplating how the
state was going to take his life. Each day brought him nearer
the one when he would walk to Louisiana state penitentiary's
death chamber, be strapped to a gurney and receive a lethal
past his 17th birthday, he fit every stereotype for those
most likely to be sentenced to death: he was black, a child
and had severe learning difficulties. More importantly, he
was innocent. But Mr Matthews, now 24, is free after being
exonerated, thanks largely to British funds and the efforts
of British lawyers. Money raised in the UK, including $17,900
from Martha Lane Fox, the Lastminute.com entrepreneur, was
crucial to winning his release.
first interview since being freed, he told the Guardian that
his British supporters had saved his life. "All these
people who didn't know me but they cared about me and they
cared about my case - they could see the wrong that was done.
I want to thank them for believing in me and bringing me this
far and giving me back my life."
convicted of the 1997 shooting of a grocery store owner, Tommy
Vanhoose, even though there was nothing to link him to the
scene of the crime. His friend, however, had confessed to
police that he had been the accomplice and getaway driver.
Travis Hayes, was also a juvenile and suffered from severe
learning difficulties. He is still serving a life sentence
for being an accomplice to a crime his friend did not commit.
He says the police bullied him into making his confession,
and he refused to testify against Mr Matthews in court.
April night the real killer - who shot Mr Vanhoose four times
after he refused to hand over his week's takings - discarded
the ski mask he had used. On it were found traces of spittle
and sweat. When this was tested, the DNA did not match that
of Mr Matthews. This did not deter prosecutors or the jury.
jury started hearing the evidence at 9.30am and finished at
midnight, when they retired to consider their verdict,"
said Shauneen Lambe, a British barrister who was at the trial.
"At 4.40am they came back to say they were not unanimous,
to which the judge said they must be. They returned 20 minutes
later to say that they were unanimous now, that Ryan was guilty.
It was shocking." Two days later he was sentenced to
working in the US with Clive Stafford Smith - a British-born
lawyer who has spent more than 20 years in the southern US
representing more than 200 people on death row - Ms Lambe
started working on the case. Rumours began filtering out of
Louisiana's prisons that a man called Rondell Love had been
boasting that he had killed Mr Vanhoose. Love was serving
20 years for a murder committed half a mile from the grocery
store and six months after the Vanhoose murder. Ms Lambe returned
to Britain seeking funding for her investigations. The British-based
group Reprieve, which helps impoverished people on death row,
gave the case its full backing. Ms Lane Fox, who sits on its
board, agreed to fund the case. DNA tests proved that Love
had been the wearer of the ski mask.
was granted in April this year. Mr Matthews remained in prison
until June, when he was given bail and put under house arrest.
By the beginning of last month, prosecutors conceded that
charges should never have been brought and exonerated him
"in the interests of justice".
Fox said: "Since the reintroduction of the death penalty
in the United States 115 people have been exonerated from
death row; 115 times the jury got it wrong and 115 people
could now be dead. Ryan's case epitomises why we must never
give up the fight against the death penalty."
the US supreme court will consider whether it is constitutional
to execute people for crimes committed when they were 16 or
told the Guardian: "I was just a juvenile when they sent
me away, and now I am a grown man. I am trying to pick up
where I left off and trying to get back on track. I am going
to come to London in October to see all the people who helped
me and say thank you."
Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
(R) thedailystar.net 2004