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Former death row prisoner Ryan Matthews freed in Louisiana
Justice at last!

By Eric Ruder | June 25, 2004 | Page 12

RYAN MATTHEWS, who ended his teenage years as an innocent man on Louisiana's death row, finally walked free from prison last week. "We're still in shock," Ryan's sister, Monique, told Socialist Worker. "It hasn't really sunk in yet."

In May 1997, when he was 17 years old, Ryan was convicted of murdering a grocery owner and sent to death row. The case was a fraud from the start. "This is the trifecta in terms of what's wrong with the death penalty," said Billy Sothern of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, which represents Ryan. "Ryan was a juvenile at the time of the murder, he's retarded and he's innocent."

Last year, Ryan's attorneys presented the results of DNA testing of a ski mask used in the crime that proved Ryan couldn't have been the killer. Prosecutors dragged their feet before finally agreeing in April to a new trial. Then, just before Ryan was set to be released in early June, the state announced that previously undetected skin cells and an eyelash had miraculously materialized on the ski mask.

New DNA testing again showed that Ryan wasn't the perpetrator. "But now they want to send it to another DNA lab that's supposedly going to do a more extensive test," said Monique. "I think they're full of it. Jefferson Parish is an extremely racist county, and they feel like they can do whatever they want. They've been doing it for years, so what makes the Ryan Matthews case different?"

Ryan has always maintained his innocence. But in the original trial, prosecutors filled the jury with 11 whites in a county that is one-third people of color. And the judge did his part to secure the conviction, rushing through a trial that lasted three days.

On the second day of the trial, prosecutors presented evidence until 10 p.m. When the defense moved to recess until the next day, the judge refused--and ordered prosecutors and the defense to make their closing statements. The defense again moved to rest, and the judge again refused, sending jurors to deliberate.

At 4:20 a.m. on the third day, the jury sent a note to the judge saying that they weren't able to reach a verdict. Yet the judge ordered them to continue deliberations. Just 40 minutes later, having spent 14 straight hours without sleep, listening to evidence and deliberating, the exhausted jury returned a guilty verdict.

As happy as the Matthews family is to have Ryan home, they remain angry at the criminal justice system--and at the refusal of prosecutors to leave them in peace after taking so many years from Ryan. "It's just so ironic because they're acting like they did us some great favor by letting Ryan come home," said Monique. "And we are very excited, but at the same time, Ryan was let out on bail.

"My mother had to pay $5,000 for him to be released, and of course, that came with the condition that he would be under house arrest. So he's now in the home incarceration program, which costs us $50 a week. He can't even go out of our front or back door. We had a Father's Day party Sunday, but he couldn't go, so I stayed with him."

"It's bittersweet. He's home, but I'm just ready for it to be over with. It's been prolonged long enough. But the fight for justice for Ryan has put Jefferson Parish prosecutors on notice. "Now it's coming back to haunt them, so they have to be more cautious," says Monique, brimming with confidence. "And the whole world is watching."

"This has touched my life"

Ryan's sister MONIQUE MATTHEWS talked to Socialist Worker about the importance of the struggle against the death penalty.

I ALWAYS wondered where my voice needed to be heard the most. But my voice didn't really have a home in church where I used to speak with my mom. I used to wonder what I was supposed to be doing, what my calling was--and I think it's this.

I know when I speak out that I'm speaking from experience. And I know what I'm talking about. This has touched my life. My father was murdered, and now I'm a victim in a different way--a victim of the criminal justice system. So I've been on both sides, and I know the system sucks, and that something has to be done about it. We're at the point of no return.

And when you have to visit your brother in prison, it really opens your eyes. I think a lot of people believe in the death penalty because they're ignorant. Somebody has to open your eyes.

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