Ryan Matthews was 17 when he came into contact with America’s justice system. Mathews’ encounter with the discriminatory system led to his incarceration two years later for a crime he knew nothing about, spending five years on Louisiana’s death row.
Mathews’ misfortune with the law began in April 1997. A man wearing a ski mask entered Vanhoose’s store and demanded money. Vanhoose refused and the man shot him four times and fled. With his mask off, the perpetrator jumped into the passenger side window of an awaiting car. The victim was a white businessman.
Matthews would then be stopped several hours after the crime because the car they were riding in resembled the description of the getaway car, according to the Innocence Project. He was charged with the murder and a trial began.
Innocent and despite no evidence linking him to the fatal shooting of the businessman, Mathews was found guilty by 11 white jurors and one black and sentenced to death at the age of 19.
Mathews’ situation and that of many other African Americans was succinctly captured in a brief by the Vera Institute of Justice in research titled: An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System. In this study, the Institute gave a summary of how America’s history of racism and oppression continues to rear its ugly head in the criminal justice system and perpetuates the unequal treatment of black people.
Mathews would later be exonerated after a stunning investigation by William Sothern and Clive Stafford Smith of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center. It is also said that DNA testing in another murder case proved to be the key to proving Matthews’ innocence.
The test result from the second murder was compared to results from Matthews’ conviction, proving his long-held innocence. Mathew would then be exonerated and released in 2004.
“I just kept hope that eventually one day the truth might come out,” he told WFAA. “I tried to keep my mind outside those walls,” he said. “I read. I exercised. I wrote. I couldn’t let that place get me down. I couldn’t go crazy. I mean, they’d win. I’m already in for something I didn’t do, so if I lose my mind, I’m a lost cause and I’ll never get out.”
Seven years after his exoneration and release, Mathews picked up the pieces of his life and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in applied arts and science from TWU in Denton, Texas.
“All those years ago when I first came home, a reporter asked me what I wanted to do and I told them I wanted to go to school,” WFAA quoted him as saying. “It’s coming true.”
Mathews’ story of perseverance would become a source of inspiration to his sister and mother, who would both return to school. “I am proud, proud, proud as I could be,” the sister Monique, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. at TWU said.
Mathews believes he would have been a college graduate had he not been dished a dose of the cruelty associated with America’s justice system.
“It took a travesty for me to get to this point,” he said.