Clarion Ledger

Bookmark and Share

October 8, 2010

Ex-inmate cleared of crime

Spent more than a dozen years in prison

by Jerry Mitchell

Matthew Norwood spent more than a dozen years behind bars for a carjacking he did not commit.

On Thursday, the 30-year-old man clutched the order issued by Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd tossing out Norwood's 1995 conviction.

"This is what I was looking for," said Norwood, who has been free since 2007 but not clear. "It's a blessing from God. In that prison, anything can happen."

It's the third time in recent months in Mississippi that individuals convicted have been cleared of crimes more than a decade later, but the first in which the police found the evidence that led to the exoneration.

In September, a judge exonerated Bobby Ray Dixon and Phillip Bivens of the 1979 rape and murder of a Hattiesburg woman after DNA cleared the two men as well as the late Larry Donnell Ruffin, who died in prison.

Norwood's attorney, Kevin Rundlett of Jackson, said he's filing paperwork today for Norwood to obtain the $50,000 a year he is due from the state for being wrongly imprisoned. State law caps wrongful imprisonment awards at $500,000.

Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith supported the conviction being tossed. "If there's been an injustice, it's my duty to correct that," he said.
Matthew Norwood
Matthew Norwood (left) sits with his attorney, Kevin Rundlett, discussing a wrongful conviction that sent him to prison for 15 years for a carjacking he did not commit. Norwood's innocence came to light for authorities during an unrelated investigation. (Vickie D. King/The Clarion-Ledger)
Smith's office became interested in the carjacking case because a shell casing had been found in that car. Ballistics identified the casing as being fired from the service revolver of slain Jackson Patrolman R.J. Washington.

Smith had hoped to solve the 1995 killing of Washington, but he acknowledges it may never be solved. "I had no idea when I took office that it involved so many missing pieces, so many dead witnesses and other serious problems we ran into along the way," he said.

After reading the case file and interviewing witnesses, Smith said he recognized Norwood couldn't have been involved in the carjacking. For starters, Norwood was identified as driving the manual transmission car, he said, and Norwood can't drive a car with a clutch.

The woman whose vehicle was carjacked initially identified one man and was less certain about Norwood, identifying him because his ears were larger. Days later, she called back police, saying she was wrong about the first man she'd identified without hesitation.

But the case went forward against Norwood, who was 15 at the time and had no criminal record.

He was stunned to be charged and jailed, he said. "There was no evidence, no fingerprints, no testimony, no type of blood. They didn't have anything on me, but it was allowed to go through."

A police investigator came to interview him and promised to help him in exchange for the information he knew about Washington's killing, Rundlett said. "The investigator said Matthew just broke down crying, saying, 'I don't know anything about it.' "

The investigator testified in a recent hearing that he began to question Norwood's guilt, but the prosecutor didn't talk to the investigator before a plea, Rundlett said.

Jackson lawyer Andre de Gruy, Norwood's public defender at the time, said he never believed his client was guilty. "With the knowledge I have now, I would have said, 'Let's go to trial and take our chances,' " he said.

What prosecutors offered Norwood was a plea bargain.

He could plead to a lesser charge of robbery and go through the Regimented Inmate Discipline program, a "boot camp" run by the state Department of Corrections. If he successfully completed the program, he would get to go home.

"I was looking at 15 years to life," Norwood recalled. "I just wanted to be free."

Rather than pleading guilty, he agreed to a "best interest" plea in which he did not admit to his guilt and told the judge he was innocent.

He attended the RID program for six months, but he was written up for a series of minor violations, he said. "Talking. Sitting on top of my bed. I wasn't fighting."

He acknowledged he has suffered from a behavioral disorder since he was 7 and from both depression and an explosive temper. He was physically abused when he was young, he said.

Because he failed to complete the RID program, the judge ordered him to serve 15 years in prison.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, which assisted in the case, said the matter raises questions about the handling of young defendants and the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Faulty eyewitness testimony has played a role in about half the exonerations in the last several years in Mississippi.

De Gruy said people tend to think of a confession or eyewitness testimony as more reliable, but what he's found is either may be less reliable than circumstantial evidence.

Most people who give eyewitness identification aren't lying but may be mistaken, he said.

That Norwood served more than a dozen years for a crime he didn't commit is frightening, said de Gruy, who heads the Office of Capital Defense. "I wouldn't say Matthew is the only innocent person I stood next to at a guilty plea."

Norwood showed off scars and a missing tooth Thursday as proof of his tough time in prison. "I thought I wasn't going to make it," he said.

He did survive, and now he is trying to survive on the outside, still searching for a job. "It's been up and down," he said. "It's been a blessing to be out here with my family, friends and people I didn't even know."

He paused. "I love my freedom."

Recent Cases
Truth in Justice