Exoneree Ryan Matthews Calls for Ending Louisiana’s Death Penalty: “I Know Capital Punishment Doesn’t Work”

DNA exonerated Ryan Matthews in 2004, after he had spent five years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a murder he did not commit. In December 2019, he received his college degree. “I’m so used to obstacles getting in my way,” Matthews, told Nola.com. “But that won’t stop me. When one door shuts, I work to get another one to open.”

In a February 6, 2020 op-ed in The Advocate in which he describes his time on death row, Matthews lends his voice to opening doors for others as well. “Louisiana has one of the highest rates of wrongful conviction and of wrongly sentencing people to death in the country,” he writes. “We’ve exonerated more men from death row than we’ve executed in the last 20 years. Some people say that means our justice system works. It does not. I was only exonerated by the grace of God and my dedicated legal team. I guarantee there are still innocent men on death row who have not had my good luck.”

“I know capital punishment doesn’t work,” Matthews says. “it’s high time we end the death penalty in Louisiana.”

Shortly after his 17th birthday, Matthews was arrested for the murder of a local convenience store owner by a masked young man. Witnesses described the murderer as short — no taller than 5’8”. Three witnesses interviewed by police were unable to definitively identify Matthews, who is at least 6 feet tall, as the perpetrator.

But Matthews’ court-appointed lawyer was ill prepared and unable to handle inconsistencies in the state’s case, statements by a cooperating co-defendant that implicated Matthews but were contradicted by the physical evidence, and the DNA evidence in the case. He “did nothing for me, and did not investigate my case,” Matthews says.

On the third day of the trial, the judge ordered closing arguments, and sent the jury to deliberate. When they could not agree on a verdict after several hours, the court ordered them to continue deliberations until they did. Less than an hour later, the verdict was in: they found Matthews guilty and, after a short penalty phase, sentenced him to death two days later.

When Matthews arrived on death row, he was surprised by the show of humanity that greeted him. The other death-row prisoners had heard he was coming and “took up a collection for a welcome bag, with candy, snacks, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and other hygiene items,” he writes. “It was a small gesture, but one that meant a lot. They didn’t have much to offer, but they gave it freely, and I learned to pay it forward and contribute to the next guy.”

Matthews also describes the emotionally debilitating conditions on death row. “We were in solitary confinement, 23-hour lockdown each day,” he writes. “We had one hour to shower, use the phone, or walk the hall to talk to the other men in their cells.” Two men on his death-row tier with whom he became friends were executed. “I will never forget the somber feeling that came over all of us in the days leading up to an execution,” he said.

Matthews credits his “crazy hard-working low-paid” post-conviction defense team for relentlessly pursuing the evidence that secured his release. Without them, he says, “I would never have been freed. I would have been executed. Or I would still be sitting on death row.”

In March 2003, Matthews’ defense team won a motion to have the physical evidence re-tested, obtaining seven DNA profiles from the mask, shirt, and glove worn by the gunman. The results excluded Matthews, and pointed directly to another man who was serving time for a murder committed a few months after the convenience store killing and only blocks away. In April 2004, based on the DNA results and exculpatory evidence that the prosecution had suppressed at trial, the court overturned Matthews’ conviction and granted him bail. He was officially exonerated on August 9, 2004 when prosecutors conceded that charges should never have been brought against him, dropped all of the charges against him, and declared that his exoneration was “in the interest of justice.”

Matthews was the 14th death row inmate freed with the help of DNA testing.

“The torture I went through … was like something from a horror movie. It still haunts me at times. Nobody could go through that and say that the death penalty is a good idea or that our justice system works. It is a hell I will be trying to recover from every remaining day I live on this earth,” Matthews says in his op-ed. “We should spend the hundreds of millions of dollars we currently spend trying to execute defendants on productive things like education, crime prevention, and victim support.”