A case that cries out for justice

By: Billy Southern

In May 1999, a jury convicted and sentenced Ryan Matthews to die for a 1997 murder at Comeaux's Grocery, a mom-and-pop convenience store in Bridge City, La., just outside New Orleans. DNA evidence now proves Ryan's innocence. New evidence not only exonerates Ryan but identifies the person who really committed this crime--a man named Rondell Love whose physical appearance is much closer to the descriptions offered by witnesses and who bragged to various people that he committed the murder.

In researching Love's murder conviction, Ryan's defense found a copy of a DNA report reflecting Love's DNA profile. Comparing this to the DNA on the mask worn in the Comeaux's murder, it was a match. Recognizing the strength of the evidence of innocence in this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ordered an exoneration hearing where the evidence can be heard. Because the district attorneys refuse to concede, Ryan will continue to struggle for freedom during a series of hearings beginning in August.

A mother tells of her son's fight
Ryan Matthews' mother, Pauline, talks about her son's fight for justice.

My son, Ryan Matthews, is on death row in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit. He was arrested for this crime when he was still a child, just days past his 17th birthday. He has always maintained his innocence, and I have always believed him. Now, DNA evidence and a confession prove what we always knew. Hopefully, we can finally get the courts and the state to listen.

I feel like the trial where Ryan was sentenced to die was more like a lynching than a legal action. In fact, recently the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office that prosecuted Ryan received international attention because its district attorneys were wearing neckties with images of nooses on them in court while seeking the death penalty against another young Black person accused of a crime when he was a child. I was deeply saddened at the thought of this child's parent seeing what a joke this whole process is to the district attorneys in Jefferson Parish.

To the families of the children facing the death penalty, it is not a joke at all but a life-or-death struggle. In Ryan's trial, there was only one Black person on the 12-person jury, despite the fact that a quarter of the population of Jefferson Parish are people of color. The judge was white, the prosecutors were white, even the defense lawyers were white. The jury then believed the weak evidence of two white witnesses and ignored evidence from Black witnesses who could have proven Ryan's innocence.

Maybe we would have done better if we could have paid for a lawyer instead of having one appointed by the court. The lawyer who was appointed to represent my child met with me only once for a few minutes before the trial and spent scarcely more time with Ryan. It was like we had no lawyer at all.

I have traveled around the country and the world to bring attention to Ryan's case. Last February, I traveled to Rome with my daughter, where we met with Vatican officials and Catholic human rights groups to address the issue of the juvenile death penalty. We were traveling with a delegation of family members of children who have received the death penalty and had the honor of being specially seated at an audience with the Pope. It was so heartening to be in the presence of one of the moral leaders of the world, as he let us know in no uncertain terms that the Catholic Church and almost every country in the world is opposed to giving children the death penalty.

The trip to Rome put a new urgency into my struggle for Ryan. One of the members of our delegation was a woman named Rena Beazley, whose son Napoleon was one of the last persons executed in the United States for a crime committed as a child. During the five days I spent with her, I saw her cry several times when talking about her child's execution. Despite whatever her son might have done, it was difficult to see this innocent woman in such pain. I believe that if more people could see her tears, they would know that the death penalty is wrong, and they would end this practice.

Hopefully, if any good can come from the nightmare that has occurred in my family because of Ryan's wrongful conviction and death sentence, it will be that his case will show what is wrong with the death penalty for children and adults alike.