Justice for Ryan is long overdue

By: Liliana Segura

On March 11, Ryan Matthews could walk off of Louisiana’s death row a free man. The Division M court in Jefferson Parish, La., will hold a hearing on Matthews’ case to consider DNA evidence that could set him free. If there is justice to be found in the racist courts that sentenced Ryan to die in the first place, it will be on this day.

Ryan has been on death row at Angola State Prison since 1999 for the murder of Tommy Vanhoose, a store clerk in Bridge City, La. Despite the total lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime--and plenty of evidence casting doubt on his guilt--Ryan was found guilty two years later and sentenced to die in a trial that was close to a legal lynching.

How close? The prosecution team included individuals known to have worn ties decorated with nooses and images of the Grim Reaper. Their entire case was based on a dubious confession by Ryan’s friend Travis Hayes, the alleged getaway driver in the murder who, tragically, is now serving a life sentence for a crime in which he had no part. Ryan has maintained his innocence since his arrest, but as his case has demonstrated, the life of a young Black man--let alone his word--is worth little to the state of Louisiana.

Ryan’s case, like so many other death penalty cases, looks more rotten the closer you get. He was arrested on April 7, 1997, two weeks after his 17th birthday. Police were ostensibly searching for a small man who jumped into his car through the passenger window when fleeing the crime scene. Ryan is six feet tall; the corresponding window of the car in which he was arrested was damaged, which made it impossible to open.

This fact didn’t make it into the trial. Neither did the fact that DNA found on the inside of a ski mask worn by the killer did not match Ryan--but did match Rondell Love, a convicted murderer who fits the description of the killer.

It gets worse. Love is reported to have bragged about the killing to a fellow inmate at Jefferson Parish correctional facility and is currently serving time for another murder--of a woman named Chandra Conley--which took place eight months after Ryan’s arrest and less than a mile away from the convenience store where Vanhoose was killed.

It is worth noting that Chandra was a young Black woman who was brutally strangled. Her killer got 20 years. Tommy Vanhoose was a white man. His alleged killer got death.

Racism infused Ryan’s trial, which is not surprising given that Jefferson Parish is the same county where David Duke, the famous ex-Klan member, was voted to be a state representative in 1987--and almost was elected governor four years later.

With this kind of legacy, it should also be no surprise that Ryan’s jury was made up of 11 whites and one African American--in a county with a 30 percent minority population. This same jury was kept at court all night after the second day of deliberations by a judge who received a note from the jury at 4:20 a.m. asking for a rest, but ignored it--demanding that jurors continue deliberating until they reached a decision. At 5 a.m., the cowed, sleep-deprived jurors returned a guilty verdict.

The details of Ryan’s case are sickening, but not entirely shocking. We are all too aware already of the depravities of the criminal justice system. What makes Ryan’s case significant is that it exemplifies the triad of flaws that make capital punishment so monstrous. Ryan was a juvenile at the time of his trial. He is borderline mentally retarded, with an IQ of 71. And he is innocent.

His execution would combine and epitomize the worst possible elements of the death penalty. That Ryan is Black is simply in keeping with a system that thrives on racism--and a society that values one life over another along chillingly visible lines.

Ryan’s mother Pauline and his sister Monique have become outspoken critics of the courts that denied Ryan justice. Both were featured speakers at the Campaign’s annual convention held this past November. As Monique said recently, "Now my voice has found a home in the movement. And we can’t wait for Ryan’s freedom and to speak out. I’m in this fight for life."

A number of chapters are hosting upcoming panel discussions that the Matthews have agreed to be part of.

If on March 11, the court does the right thing, it will mark the end of a nightmare the Matthews should never have had to endure. Justice for Ryan may be around the corner, but it is long overdue.