Ryan Matthews exonerated in murder
After seven years, court finally frees suspect once on death row
By Gwen Filosa
August 10, 2004

Once condemned to die by lethal injection for the 1997 murder of a Bridge City grocer, Ryan Matthews left court Monday a free man after prosecutors dropped all charges against him in the face of DNA evidence that points to another man.

Judge Henry Sullivan, of the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna, formally released Matthews from house arrest and vacated the $105,000 bond that required Matthews to be confined to his mother's Gretna home, pending a new trial. Sullivan is the judge who sentenced Matthews to death in 1999.

Matthews was released from prison in June, after Jefferson Parish prosecutors received results from DNA tests that showed no trace of Matthews on evidence recovered from the murder scene of Tommy Vanhoose. Matthews, who his attorneys say is mentally retarded, was 17 at the time of the killing.

Matthews was accused of robbing Vanhoose at his store, Comeaux's Grocery, and shooting him to death after he refused to hand over any money. Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick said he decided that the evidence did not warrant a second trial.

"There is insufficient evidence to gain a conviction," Connick said. "We cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It would not be fair to pursue it if the evidence doesn't warrant that."

Matthews' defense team said the conviction was a mistake that would have gone uncorrected if they hadn't aggressively challenged the state's case by subjecting the evidence to a new round of DNA testing.

"The district attorney's office really did the right thing," said Billy Sothern of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center in New Orleans. "It shows how strong the case for innocence was. They could have tried it. This is a complete and total exoneration."

Connick said his office is investigating the link that Matthews' defense team unearthed: DNA on a ski mask left at the murder scene matching that of convicted killer Rondell Love, who is serving 20 years in prison for slashing a woman's throat in Bridge City in 1998. Matthews' attorneys say Love had bragged in prison about killing Vanhoose.

Love, however, has refused to answer prosecutors' questions, Connick said.

'It's finally over'

Matthews, now 24, was soft-spoken after the brief hearing, at which prosecutor David Wolff announced that the state was dismissing the first-degree murder charge. He said he may want to study business. Asked what he wanted to do for the rest of the day, he flashed a quick smile.

"Whatever I feel like doing," he replied, before getting a cold drink at a nearby coffee shop and awaiting the final red tape of his incarceration to unravel: His family had to pay $100 to have the electronic monitoring bracelet removed from his ankle, which was hidden by his khaki pants.

"It's been a long seven years, but it's finally over," Pauline Matthews said of her son's release Monday. "I knew Ryan was innocent and I had to have hope for Ryan."

Ryan Matthews had hope, too. "We knew it was going to happen," he said Monday, minutes after Sullivan ordered him freed. "It ain't no big surprise."

Matthews' hopes for release began in April 2003, when his attorneys released DNA tests showing that skin cells from a ski mask worn during the crime matched that of Love. A month later, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed that the evidence warranted a new hearing on the case.

Though murder suspects rarely get out of jail on bond, Matthews was released from parish prison two months ago on a $105,000 bond and put on house arrest.

A recanted confession

On the night of the murder, police stopped Matthews and his alleged accomplice, Travis Hayes, because they were in a car that roughly matched the description of a vehicle leaving the scene of the crime.

Initially, Hayes told detectives he was nowhere near Bridge City at the time of the murder, but he eventually signed a statement saying that he drove Matthews to Vanhoose's store that night and heard gunshots after watching Matthews enter the store. He said he never asked Matthews what happened inside.

Hayes, who was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, has since recanted his statement and said he was coerced into placing Matthews and himself at the murder scene, according to his lawyer.

Prosecutors never had any scientific evidence linking Matthews to the killing. Instead, they relied on witness testimony and Hayes' confession to win a jury conviction in 1999. One of the witnesses said he caught a glimpse of Matthews in his rearview mirror as he left the scene.

Connick said the evidence was credible.

"We were operating under what we had at that time," Connick said. "We had two eyewitnesses, a statement from the co-defendant who put him on the scene. We had him caught in the getaway car. We had enough evidence to go forward."

No physical evidence

Matthews' defense team said they used shoe leather and smarts to clear their client. Connick's office spent roughly $35,000 on DNA tests to confirm what the lawyers knew all along: No physical evidence placed Matthews at the murder scene.

Sothern and lawyer Clive Stafford Smith heard jailhouse chatter that Love had been bragging about the Vanhoose murder behind bars. The lawyers took statements from inmates and dug through Love's criminal file to discover that his DNA test results matched the ones taken for Matthews' trial.

Prosecutors ordered a series of DNA tests of the ski mask and other articles of clothing found at the crime scene. Nothing linked Matthews to having been there.

Pauline Matthews, who, with her family, has dutifully attended the series of court hearings over the years, said she holds no bitterness about the legal ordeal.

"I don't have time for anger," she said, standing with her son outside the courthouse. "I have to rebuild Ryan's life."

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