'A FORGOTTEN MAN'
Prosecutors refuse to reconsider inmate's case despite evidence supporting his claim
Times-Picayune By Michael Perlstein
October 10, 2004
When Ryan Matthews was cleared by DNA evidence and released from Angola's death row in June, word traveled quickly across the sprawling prison farm to the ears of another inmate, a lifer named Travis Hayes.
Hayes allowed himself a big smile, a real smile, not a fake one like those meant to appease a guard or ward off a fight or look brave for his family. This time, for the first time in seven years, real joy was behind it.
It was just a matter of time, he figured, before he would be taking the same walk as his co-defendant, leaving behind the concrete walls and swirls of razor wire and long days digging crop rows in the fields. After all, the exoneration of Matthews in the April 1997 killing of a Bridge City grocer shattered the only firm evidence prosecutors had on Hayes, a statement to homicide detectives in which he vaguely implicated Matthews in the killing.
Now, Hayes thought, the DNA could show what his attorneys tried to prove all along: that his confession was made up, coerced in six hours of interrogations in which he was denied food, sleep or bathroom breaks. Transcripts of the interrogations show that for the first five hours of questioning, Hayes maintained that he and Matthews never set foot in Bridge City on the day Tommy Vanhoose was killed inside his neighborhood store, Comeaux's Grocery.
But the Jefferson Parish district attorney's office snuffed out whatever hope Hayes had that he would soon follow his co-defendant to freedom. Even though the DNA taken from inside a ski mask worn by the killer implicated another man with no connection to either of the original defendants, prosecutors are fighting to uphold Hayes' second-degree murder conviction and keep him in jail for life.
The district attorney's office declined to comment, saying it does not comment on pending cases. But in court documents, prosecutors contend that Hayes has no procedural grounds to argue his innocence.
"Defendant's sentence is not a death sentence," Chief of Appeals Terry Boudreaux wrote in an Oct. 4 court filing opposing Hayes' release. "Thus, to the extent that he seeks to bring a free-standing innocence claim, the law does not authorize it."
Citing a state law and a recent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, Boudreaux argues that an innocence claim must either come from a defendant facing death or it "must involve new, material, noncumulative and conclusive evidence which meets an extraordinarily high standard and which undermines the prosecution's entire case."
"Defendant does not meet that standard," he wrote.
Before any of Hayes' claims are considered in any form, Boudreaux contends, a judge must consider all procedural objections raised by prosecutors. A hearing on those procedural issues is set for Oct. 28.
Hayes' defense team, led by attorney Herbert Larson, is dumbfounded. His mother and aunts and other family members feel like they're trapped in a bizarre nightmare. And Hayes has been so deflated, his defense team said, he can barely talk about the case.
In a recent letter to attorney Emily Maw, who is shepherding the case for the nonprofit Innocence Project, Hayes wrote in imperfect English, "Don't feel as though I don't have any feeling about the situation, because I do. Its just my emotions and tears are no more. And words, there just so hard to find. I hope that you understand. All I have is patient and belief."
A ski mask and a shirt
It was just after sunset April 5, 1997, when a masked gunman burst into Comeaux's and demanded money from Vanhoose, whose nondescript store in the shadow of the Huey P. Long Bridge was a popular fixture in the scrappy blue-collar neighborhood. Vanhoose tried unsuccessfully to talk to the gunman and was shot several times.
Witnesses said they saw the killer run from store, jump through the passenger-side window of a waiting getaway car, then discard a ski mask and a tattered shirt out the same window as the car was speeding away.
About four hours later, Hayes and Matthews, both 17 at the time, were stopped about 10 miles away in Harvey. Hayes was driving his sister's 1981 Grand Prix, which roughly matched the description of the getaway car. But there was one glaring difference between the car driven by Hayes and the car seen by witnesses: The passenger window in Hayes' sister's car was broken and stuck in the up position.
It was a big hole in the case, but if detectives had any doubts about the involvement of the teenagers, the doubts apparently were overcome by Hayes' statement to detectives.
During the first few rounds of questioning, Hayes gave an account of the evening that matched a separate statement by Matthews: joyriding around the West Bank, visiting family and friends, driving his brother-in-law to work. But during a final round of questioning at 5 a.m., Hayes reversed field and placed Matthews inside Comeaux's, saying he heard gunshots and saw his friend running from the store. Even with that admission, Hayes had a hard time providing details and seemed oblivious that a crime took place.
At one point, he was asked by a detective, "When did he tell you that he was in fact involved in (the shooting)?"
"He ain't never told nothing," Hayes responded.
"He never did?"
"I just found out."
"You found out through us talking to you?
Classic false confession
In Hayes' application for post-conviction relief, defense attorneys attack the statement head-on, claiming that it is a classic example of a false confession.
"That confession, frankly, isn't worth the paper it's typed on," Larson said. "It's a statement at 5 a.m. by a terrified, mentally retarded teenager who wasn't allowed to talk to anyone or use the bathroom. In his fourth statement he capitulates to statements from the interrogating officers. . . . If they had kept on for another hour, they could have had him confessing to the Kennedy assassination."
Steven Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University and nationally recognized expert on false confessions, studied Hayes' statements and declared it "the most naked, uncorroborated false confession I've ever seen."
"There are no facts or details of the crime or the crime scene. Nothing. He doesn't know anything about the store. He doesn't even know his way around Bridge City. It's stunning to me that someone could be convicted on the basis of this statement," Drizin said.
The existence of false or coerced confessions has been known for decades, but recent studies have put some numbers to the phenomenon. Nationally known defense attorney Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is based in New York, found that false confessions were made in 24 percent of the 150 DNA exonerations studied by his group.
A classic example of the phenomenon is the 1989 Central Park jogger case. In that case, five teenagers who confessed to beating and raping a female jogger in New York's Central Park were exonerated after DNA tests implicated another man who later confessed.
But it wasn't just Hayes' confession that doomed him, defense attorneys believe. In Hayes' petition, Larson offers a host of other issues that he contends led to the conviction of an innocent person. Among them:
-- His defense attorney at trial, Robert Pastor, was ineffective. Pastor, in a 2003 affidavit, agreed: "My representation of Travis was inadequate for a number of reasons. . . . I told the court when my trial continuance motion was denied that I was being forced to try a case of second-degree murder from the hip, that I was ill and unprepared, and that was what they forced me to do."
-- Prosecutors withheld evidence that could have cleared Hayes. That evidence included witness statements, a supplementary police report and the DNA evidence that excluded Ryan Matthews as the killer.
-- Prejudicial evidence was allowed into the trial in violation of Hayes' constitutional rights. That evidence included a portion of Hayes' statement in which he said he smoked marijuana on the night of the killing and another portion in which he mentioned being "in jail," a reference to a juvenile prison sentence Hayes served for cocaine possession.
In its written response to the defense motion, prosecutors confronted the objections one-by-one, shooting down each with the argument, "This claim should be dismissed as it is procedurally barred."
Another man's DNA
For the most part, the technical arguments in the case are lost on Hayes' loved ones. What is not lost is the fact that DNA evidence cleared Ryan Matthews, discredited Hayes' so-called confession and implicated another man.
After spending more than $35,000 on DNA tests, prosecutors found that the only DNA on the ski mask left behind by the killer belonged to Rondell Love, who has admitted that he has never met Hayes or Matthews. Love is now serving 20 years in prison for manslaughter for slashing a woman's throat in Bridge City, a crime that occurred eight months after the Vanhoose killing.
To support its theory that Love is the real killer, the defense team has referred to several witnesses who say Love bragged about the crime. In the defense petition, Troy Abrons recalls a conversation with Love: "He said the man (Vanhoose) said some 'smart-assed s- - -,' so Rondell shot him. . . . He said the man wouldn't give him any money."
Family members said it didn't take DNA evidence to convince them of Hayes' innocence. Hayes, who stands just over 5 feet tall and weighs about 110 pounds, had never so much as been in a fight, much less a serious act of violence, they said. Hayes, a special education student and eighth-grade dropout, was easy to lull into a false confession, they said, because he was always a follower, always eager to please.
"He was always a real meek, well-mannered person. We knew right away it was a ridiculous charge," said one of his aunts, Dolores Parker.
Another aunt, Doris Forte, said she knew Hayes was innocent as soon as she heard about the car window contradiction and the "faded, raggedy old shirt" that witnesses said the killer tossed from the window along with the ski mask.
"Neither of those boys would have been caught dead in a rag like that," she said. "They were always clean and pressed."
Hayes' mother, Juanita, is a woman of few words and, like her son, a slow learner. She has a hard time following the details of the case, but she knows this: Recent events have almost made it too painful to visit her son in prison.
"When it's time to go, I just can't stand to leave him like that," she said. "My son is innocent. Why can't they stand up and tell people they were wrong? Somebody needs to fix this mistake."
Larson said his client isn't the only victim in the case. The position of the district attorney's office has "revictimized" Vanhoose's family, he said.
Vanhoose's relatives could not be reached for comment. Last year, Vanhoose's son, Rocky, supported attempts by prosecutors to keep Matthews on death row. But mostly he spoke about the emotional trauma of seeing the case reopened.
"I can't even use my regular thought process because I feel bombarded," Rocky Vanhoose was quoted saying during Matthews' appeal process.
The Jefferson Parish district attorney's office, Larson said, can do a lot to help ease the pain of the Vanhoose family.
"We know who's responsible for this murder," Larson said. "Why they're keeping an innocent man in prison instead of going after the real killer is a travesty."
Even some of the jurors who convicted Hayes are concerned. Five of them have signed sworn statements, submitted with Hayes' petition, that the DNA test results would have made a difference at trial.
"I think a new jury should look at this new evidence," stated one of the jurors, George Lorio. "I don't want anyone to stay in jail who is not guilty."
Another juror Lawrence Aucoin, stated, "I have been shown the papers on the DNA evidence that there is now someone else who did the crime. We should have been told about that. I can guarantee you the result of the trial would have been different."
To Larson and the Innocence Project investigators, working on the case as volunteers, the injustice is compounded by the fact Matthews is a free man. In an ironic twist of the legal system, Matthews' conviction, for first-degree murder, was easier to undo because he was on death row, giving him more appeal avenues and more resources than someone sentenced to life in prison.
"It is a sad state of affairs," said attorney William Sothern, who represented Matthews for the Capital Appeals Project, "that in order to get exonerated, a man first needs to be sentenced to die."
"Travis is like a forgotten man," Maw said. "There almost seems to be a feeling that somebody who is serving a life sentence has gotten off easy, so what are they complaining about? Well, natural life is not a light sentence. And for someone who is innocent, it's torture."