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Newly Discovered DNA Evidence Proves Death Row Juvenile Innocent

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“This is a classic case of wrongful conviction. He was a juvenile, mentally retarded, put on death row for a crime he did not commit.” These are the words of Clive Stafford Smith, one of the attorneys for Ryan Matthews, a 23-year-old prisoner on death row.

Matthews was 17 when he was arrested for the 1997 murder of Bridge City grocer Tommy Vanhoose. Attorneys for Matthews say DNA tests have proven that he is innocent and that another inmate was the killer. During the trial, experts testified that the DNA evidence did not match Matthews or the getaway driver, Travis Hayes, who is serving a life sentence for the crime. Matthews was largely convicted on the testimony of two eyewitnesses whose testimony has been questioned.

Smith said that Matthews fits the legal definition of mentally retarded and cannot be executed because of a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment we’re going to be talking about Shiite Muslims, their convergence on the holy city of Karbala, demanding U.S. troops get out of the country. We’re going to hear professor — Columbia University professor Edward Said speaking about Orientalism and the invasion of Iraq. But first we go down to Louisiana.

“This is a classic case of wrongful conviction. He was a juvenile, mentally retarded, put on death row for a crime he did not commit.” These are the words of Clive Stafford Smith, one of the attorneys for Ryan Matthews, a 23-year-old prisoner on death row.

Matthews was 17 when he was arrested for the 1997 murder of Bridge City grocer Tommy Vanhoose. Attorneys for Matthews say DNA tests have proved he’s innocent and that another prisoner was the killer. During the trial, experts testified that the DNA evidence did not match Matthews or the getaway driver, Travis Hayes, who’s serving a life sentence for the crime. Matthews was largely convicted on the testimony of two eyewitnesses whose testimony has been questioned.

Smith said that Matthews fits the legal definition of mentally retarded and cannot be executed, because of a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

We’re going to go now to a news conference held earlier this week by Clive Stafford Smith, director of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: The killer wore a ski mask. One of the key witnesses at trial said that he watched the killer come out of this murder scene, drive off, throw the ski mask out of the car. He picked up the ski mask, the witness did, gave it to the police. That ski mask has Rondell Love’s DNA on it, absolutely excludes Ryan Matthews. Ryan Matthews is innocent.

Moments after the murder, one of the state’s key eyewitnesses picked up the mask that was worn by the person who committed the murder. We have taken the DNA from the ski mask, and we have matched it identically to the DNA from the suspect, who we now know is the real killer. It’s an absolute match. There is almost no possibility that this person is not the real killer. And I ask you: DNA has been used so many times to send people to death row; what sort of a system is going to refuse to recognize DNA to let an innocent person go?

The probability that Ryan Matthews is not the killer is something like 99.99%. And we’re absolutely clear of it. There is no jury in the world who would not convict the person who is 99.99% known to be the real killer. There are not enough people in Jefferson Parish for there to be another person who could have committed this crime.

I’m not here to prosecute Rondell Love, but I don’t think any reasonable person can look at the evidence we’ve got and say Rondell Love is not the real killer. It’s clear he is. It’s clear that if he went to a jury in Jefferson Parish, he’d be convicted. What’s equally clear is that Ryan Matthews is innocent, and Ryan Matthews should not be held on death row.

AMY GOODMAN: Clive Stafford Smith, director of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, who held a news conference earlier this week. Among those who spoke was Billy Sothern, who’s the lawyer for Ryan Matthews. He joins us on the line right now.

Billy Sothern, Ryan Matthews has been on death row for how long now? Roughly six years?

BILLY SOTHERN: Well, Ryan has been on death row since 1999, when he was sentenced to die. He has been arrested and incarcerated on this charge since 1997, when he was two weeks past his 17th birthday.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why is this evidence just surfacing now?

BILLY SOTHERN: You know, I think that it’s a — I think that we see this pattern in a lot of cases, a lot of death penalty cases. This evidence was available to the DAs at the time of Ryan’s trial. The DAs in Jefferson Parish had been in possession of both of these DNA reports since 1998. And I guess it’s really unclear whether it was incompetence or whether it was actual misconduct that led to their failure to make the connection between these two DNA reports. It makes no difference to Ryan whether it was incompetence or whether it was active suppression. He sat on — he’s sitting on death row right now because of that suppression. And we’re really calling on the Jefferson Parish district attorney to do the right thing and to consent to a hearing, so that we can — so we can get this evidence in front of the court and so that we can really get Ryan off of death row, if the evidence warrants, and we’re sure that it will.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance, Billy Sothern, of James Harrison, who’s in prison now? We, when we come back from our break, are going to play some exclusive footage of his jailhouse — of his statement in jail about overhearing the jailhouse confession of the man you say is the actual killer. Who is James Harrison?

BILLY SOTHERN: James Harrison is a man that was incarcerated with Rondell Love, the person who really killed Tommy Vanhoose. Rondell Love confessed to numerous people. He bragged about doing this murder. He really bragged to anyone that would listen. And James Harrison was just another person who was a — you know, he was in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center at that time, and he overheard this guy confessing to the crime. And, you know, he was trying to do the right thing, so he told us about it. And he took what’s really a brave step and gave us a statement, because, you know, it’s not easy for someone to talk up about these things.

And the real significance is that not only do we have the DNA, but we have the DNA corroborated by these confessions, corroborated by other witnesses, corroborated by other things that happened at the time of the crime. So, we really feel like we have everything that we need to really prove the truth in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to play the exclusive footage of James Harrison in jail talking about the jailhouse confession he overheard. We’ll also be joined by Peter Neufeld, one of the founders of the Innocence Project, which is joining this case, on the issue of DNA, and Pauline Matthews, the mother of Ryan Matthews. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: The late Nina Simone. She died this week at the age of 70 in France. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” You are listening to Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about the case of Ryan Matthews. He’s 23. He’s on death row in Louisiana for the 1997 murder of a grocer, a crime that his lawyers say that he says he did not commit, and they say they have the DNA evidence to prove it. Let’s go right now to James Harrison. He was filmed by Democracy Now!’s Emily Kunstler, who went down to the Louisiana prison. He was talking about the jailhouse confession that he overheard.

JAMES HARRISON: My name is James Harrison, within WCI. And I’m here for — I have several more years to do.

When I got arrested, I had went to jail, you know, and they had conversations going on in the holding tank with this guy about this situation, what happened with them. You know what I’m saying? And that’s how I know, you know, that they didn’t do it. The guy that was talking, his name is Rondell. You know, he wasn’t talking to me; he was talking to somebody else in there, you know. But I knew him from just seeing him. You know, he was telling them about what he had done to somebody, a man in a store and all that, you know. You know, he was saying, well, that he got another one under his belt, you know what I’m saying, meaning — “another one under your belt” meaning, you know what I’m saying, this is another person you done killed, or somebody like that. You know what I mean?

He was also saying about, you know, “When I went through, I had a ski mask on.” And, you know, when he shot, they didn’t get nothing, he had to run out the store, you know. And that’s when he left and went down the River Road, you know? And that’s where they’re supposed to gonna throw the ski mask on side the ditch and the gun in the ditch or something, you know, like that.

I know he was talking about this story when he said, you know, this happened in Bridge City in a grocery store. That’s how I know. And once I seen, you know, Ryan went to jail on this, about this grocery store, then I know this was it, what they’re talking about, you know, because the paper and then everything matched up, when they say, well, Travis’s car fit the description. And Travis’s car is a Grand Prix. And the year the Ltd. was, and the Grand Prix Travis had, the back lights look exactly the same. And Travis’s car was prime gray, and it was in a gray color. The car that Travis had shouldn’t even fit the description. You know, it’s just the back lights look alike.

Rondell? No, he don’t care. You know, he feel like, you know, someone else got to charge; why should he worry about it? That’s a burden off his back. And it makes me feel bad, because I felt like if you’ve done something, you should take your charge. You know? Why should you let an innocent person be on death row for something they ain’t do? So, you know, I feel like if he had done it, I wouldn’t put myself through all this, you know? But I know he’s innocent. That’s why I put myself through all this, you know what I’m saying? Because I know he’s on death row bad. You know what I’m saying?

I feel sorry for him, you know, because, you know, it’s a sad situation. You know, you’re going through all kind of mental stress behind something you ain’t do. You know what I’m saying? And you’re facing something. You don’t know if everything gonna work out in your favor, you know. And if things don’t work out in your favor, you know you’re going to die. You know, so it’s a bad feeling, you know? And I feel bad for him, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: James Harrison. He’s at the Washington Correctional Institute in Louisiana, talking about the jailhouse confession he overheard of Rondell Love. He says he said this in a holding tank in the county jail, and says this, along with now DNA tests, indicate that the man accused, who sits on death row, Ryan Matthews, is innocent. We’re joined by Ryan Matthews’ mother right now. She is Pauline Matthews. How do you feel about this new DNA evidence? What does it mean for your son?

PAULINE MATTHEWS: I feel very good about this DNA evidence. It means that my son will finally be free. It means that he has always said he was innocent, and now the DNA proves that he’s innocent. And the whole world will know that he is innocent and he told the truth.

And finally, I hope that justice will be done. I hope the DA gets this in court as soon as possible and let Ryan free, because every day that Ryan spends in prison is too many days. He has already been in prison for too long. And every day that he’s there is too long.

AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Matthews, mother of Ryan Matthews. In today’s New York Times, on the national report, the headline — this is yesterday’s New York Times. Rick Bragg writes, “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.” Peter Neufeld is also with us, lawyer, one of the founders of the Innocence Project, which is a nonprofit legal clinic at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Innocence Project deals with DNA and freeing people based on the evidence. Even with this, Peter Neufeld, what do you think are the chances of Ryan Matthews being freed? And how significant is this DNA test that has been taken?

PETER NEUFELD: Oh, I think the chances are extraordinarily good that he will be freed now. The problem that Billy and Clive and, of course, Mrs. Matthews, so worried about her son, are confronting down there in Jefferson Parish is another district attorney with tunnel vision who has his sights set on young Ryan and finds it very difficult to let go of that. And so, he will, at least for the time being, try and imagine, create, you know, fictitiously, any possible theory he can come up with to include Ryan in the case. All of that will evaporate pretty quickly, when people realize, from the eyewitness testimony, you know, that there was one perpetrator who went in there with this particular ski mask, and the DNA on the ski mask comes back to this other guy who’s a killer, and clears Ryan completely. So, we’ve seen this before, this kind of reluctance. But, eventually, you know, truth will triumph here, and thank goodness for Ryan that it will.

From our point of view, Amy, the bigger question is: We now know that Ryan is innocent, but where did the criminal justice system in Louisiana go wrong, that allowed this innocent young man to be wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row? That’s the bigger issue, because it’s not just Ryan’s case. There’s going to be a lot more people like Ryan on death row in Louisiana, who is stone-cold innocent, and we’ve got to figure out what went wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Matthews, what has it been like for you and for your son Ryan over these past years that he has been on death row?

PAULINE MATTHEWS: The fact that Ryan has been wrongfully in prison, it has been a big impact on my life. It has changed my life totally. And I haven’t touched Ryan in four years. And, you know, to sit behind the screen, see my child shackled at the waist, his hands, he has — he had to learn how to eat like that, take his medicine like that, when he visits with me. And it’s very hard knowing that he’s innocent and has to be on death row for a crime that he did not commit. And he has always said he was innocent, you know? And I feel that he should be free, because the conditions he’s living under, it’s so unfair that a person, a child, would have to go through this. And I can’t imagine how Ryan feels, but I know that it’s been very hard on me. It’s been — it’s devastated my life, because I love Ryan Matthews. And I want to see Ryan Matthews free.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Sothern, you’re the lawyer for Ryan Matthews and a staff attorney with the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center. Here he is in Angola prison, where so many thousands of men are incarcerated. What is the schedule of events now? Why hasn’t he been freed immediately?

BILLY SOTHERN: Well, like Peter said, there’s a reluctance on the part of the district attorney, District Attorney Paul Connick of Jefferson Parish, you know, to really see the truth in this case. And, you know, it’s not surprising to us, because this is the same — these are — the same people who are responsible for seeing that Ryan gets freed are — you know, it’s the same system that saw that an innocent man was put on death row in the first place. Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office made news about two months ago, because during death penalty prosecutions of juveniles, district attorneys were wearing neckties with images of nooses on them. This is the same — this is the same parish that has a persistent pattern of racism in the selection of jurors. And then, in this case, we see what’s pretty clear suppression of evidence, suppression of DNA evidence, suppression of the fact that the key witness against Ryan had pending charges against her in Jefferson Parish, pending felony charges that were, you know, clearly weighing on her mind when she was testifying against Ryan.

So, I think that what the schedule — there is no fixed schedule. You know, Ryan could sit exactly where he is, on death row, for years, unless we really kind of pressure the powers that be to do the right thing. And I think that that means, you know, sending letters to Paul Connick, the district attorney of Jefferson Parish, and, you know, trying to pressure these people to act, because every day that Ryan sits in jail is a total travesty, a total injustice.

AMY GOODMAN: As The New York Times describes it, “On April 7, 1997, a masked gunman shot Tommy Vanhoose to death in the store he owned in Bridge City, [Louisiana], 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 State of Louisiana tried and convicted [Ryan] 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.”

Now you’ve got the DNA case. Peter Neufeld, how does this case compare to other DNA tests that you have done?

PETER NEUFELD: Oh, no, the DNA evidence is pretty impeccable here. But you just raised a very interesting point, Amy, which is that, you know, here, because of this incredible tunnel vision on the part of the cops in Jefferson Parish — I mean, think about it. The eyewitness says the assailant rips the ski mask from his face after the shooting, throws it down on the street, and then the eyewitness picks it up. They do DNA testing on that ski mask, on the saliva and skin cells left by the person who was wearing it, you know, in the mouth area, and they get a profile, and the profile doesn’t match, you know, Mr. Matthews.

What police should do at that point is say, “My god, you know, maybe we’re going down the wrong direction here. Let’s look for other people.” Had the police done that, in an appropriate and timely fashion, not only would they have avoided putting Ryan in prison, but they could have perhaps prevented Rondell Love, had they captured him in time, from committing another homicide sometime later, the one that actually put him in prison. They would have prevented that crime.

And you know what that sounds — what that’s reminiscent of? Something that right — that happened here in New York City in the Central Park jogger case, where there was a fellow named Reyes who had committed almost an identical crime a few days before the Central Park jogger case. He was identified by a police officer. If the police had pursued that matter, they would have prevented the Central Park jogger case from happening. More importantly, they would have prevented other murders from happening, because every time the police get the wrong guy in prison, the real bad guy continues to commit crimes out there. So it’s a lose-lose situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Pauline Matthews, your hopes for the future right now and for your son, Ryan Matthews?

PAULINE MATTHEWS: I hope that I can feel and touch Ryan. And I hope that the DA act quickly to get this information in court and free Ryan Matthews, because I want him free. I want to hug and kiss Ryan Matthews, and I want my child home.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get more information on the case, you can go on the web to Reprieve.org. You can go to our website for contact information at democracynow.org. And a very special thanks to Emily Kunstler and to Julia Phillips, who provided the recordings today of Clive Stafford Smith from the press conference and, most importantly, James Harrison, the exclusive video that Emily did of James Harrison, in jail right now, who overheard the jailhouse confession of Rondell Love. I want to thank all the people who have just joined us: Pauline Matthews, mother of Ryan Matthews; Billy Sothern, the lawyer for Ryan Matthews; Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project here in New York; and Julia and Emily.

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