Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 13 | September 17, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Slice of Life
   A Roman Column
   Human Rights
   Time Out
   Straight Talk
   Book Review
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home


Lost Innocence


For 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 injection.

Two weeks 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.

In his 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."

He was 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.

The friend, 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.

On that 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.

"The 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 death.

While 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.

The retrial 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".

Ms Lane 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."

This month the US supreme court will consider whether it is constitutional to execute people for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17.

Mr Matthews 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."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004



Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004