'A FORGOTTEN MAN'----Prosecutors refuse to reconsider inmate's case
despite evidence supporting his claim
When Ryan Matthews was cleared by DNA evidence and released from Angola's death
row in June, word traveled quickly across the sprawling prison farm to the ears
of another inmate, a lifer named Travis Hayes.
Hayes allowed himself a big smile, a real smile, not a fake one like those meant
to appease a guard or ward off a fight or look brave for his family. This time,
for the first time in seven years, real joy was behind it.
It was just a matter of time, he figured, before he would be taking the same
walk as his co-defendant, leaving behind the concrete walls and swirls of razor
wire and long days digging crop rows in the fields. After all, the exoneration
of Matthews in the April 1997 killing of a Bridge City grocer shattered the only
firm evidence prosecutors had on Hayes, a statement to homicide detectives in
which he vaguely implicated Matthews in the killing.
Now, Hayes thought, the DNA could show what his attorneys tried to prove all
along: that his confession was made up, coerced in 6 hours of interrogations in
which he was denied food, sleep or bathroom breaks.
Transcripts of the interrogations show that for the 1st 5 hours of questioning,
Hayes maintained that he and Matthews never set foot in Bridge City on the day
Tommy Vanhoose was killed inside his neighborhood store, Comeaux's Grocery.
But the Jefferson Parish district attorney's office snuffed out whatever
hope Hayes had that he would soon follow his co-defendant to freedom. Even
though the DNA taken from inside a ski mask worn by the killer implicated
another man with no connection to either of the original defendants, prosecutors
are fighting to uphold Hayes' second-degree murder conviction and keep him in
jail for life.
The district attorney's office declined to comment, saying it does not comment
on pending cases. But in court documents, prosecutors contend that Hayes has no
procedural grounds to argue his innocence.
"Defendant's sentence is not a death sentence," Chief of Appeals Terry Boudreaux
wrote in an Oct. 4 court filing opposing Hayes' release. "Thus, to the extent
that he seeks to bring a free-standing innocence claim, the law does not
Citing a state law and a recent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, Boudreaux
argues that an innocence claim must either come from a defendant facing death or
it "must involve new, material, non-cumulative and conclusive evidence which
meets an extraordinarily high standard and which undermines the prosecution's
"Defendant does not meet that standard," he wrote.
Before any of Hayes' claims are considered in any form, Boudreaux contends, a
judge must consider all procedural objections raised by prosecutors. A hearing
on those procedural issues is set for Oct. 28.
Hayes' defense team, led by attorney Herbert Larson, is dumbfounded. His mother
and aunts and other family members feel like they're trapped in a bizarre
nightmare. And Hayes has been so deflated, his defense team said, he can barely
talk about the case.
In a recent letter to attorney Emily Maw, who is shepherding the case for the
nonprofit Innocence Project, Hayes wrote in imperfect English, "Don't feel as
though I don't have any feeling about the situation, because I do. Its just my
emotions and tears are no more. And words, there just so hard to find. I hope
that you understand. All I have is patience and belief."
A ski mask and a shirt
It was just after sunset April 5, 1997, when a masked gunman burst into
Comeaux's and demanded money from Vanhoose, whose nondescript store in the
shadow of the Huey P. Long Bridge was a popular fixture in the scrappy
blue-collar neighborhood. Vanhoose tried unsuccessfully to talk to the gunman
and was shot several times.
Witnesses said they saw the killer run from store, jump through the
passenger-side window of a waiting getaway car, then discard a ski mask and a
tattered shirt out the same window as the car was speeding away.
About four hours later, Hayes and Matthews, both 17 at the time, were stopped
about 10 miles away in Harvey. Hayes was driving his sister's 1981 Grand Prix,
which roughly matched the description of the getaway car. But there was one
glaring difference between the car driven by Hayes and the car seen by
witnesses: The passenger window in Hayes' sister's car was broken and stuck in
the up position.
It was a big hole in the case, but if detectives had any doubts about the
involvement of the teenagers, the doubts apparently were overcome by Hayes'
statement to detectives.
During the first few rounds of questioning, Hayes gave an account of the evening
that matched a separate statement by Matthews: joyriding around the West Bank,
visiting family and friends, driving his brother-in-law to work. But during a
final round of questioning at 5 a.m., Hayes reversed field and placed Matthews
inside Comeaux's, saying he heard gunshots and saw his friend running from the
store. Even with that admission, Hayes had a hard time providing details and
seemed oblivious that a crime took place.
At one point, he was asked by a detective, "When did he tell you that he was in
fact involved in (the shooting)?"
"He ain't never told nothing," Hayes responded.
"He never did?"
"I just found out."
"You found out through us talking to you?
Classic false confession
In Hayes' application for post-conviction relief, defense attorneys attack the
statement head-on, claiming that it is a classic example of a false confession.
"That confession, frankly, isn't worth the paper it's typed on," Larson said.
"It's a statement at 5 a.m. by a terrified, mentally retarded teenager who
wasn't allowed to talk to anyone or use the bathroom. In his fourth statement he
capitulates to statements from the interrogating officers. . . . If they had
kept on for another hour, they could have had him confessing to the Kennedy
Steven Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University and nationally
recognized expert on false confessions, studied Hayes' statements and declared
it "the most naked, uncorroborated false confession I've ever seen."
"There are no facts or details of the crime or the crime scene. Nothing. He
doesn't know anything about the store. He doesn't even know his way around
Bridge City. It's stunning to me that someone could be convicted on the basis of
this statement," Drizin said.
The existence of false or coerced confessions has been known for decades, but
recent studies have put some numbers to the phenomenon. Nationally known defense
attorney Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is based in
New York, found that false confessions were made in 24 % of the 150 DNA
exonerations studied by his group.
A classic example of the phenomenon is the 1989 Central Park jogger case. In
that case, 5 teenagers who confessed to beating and raping a female jogger in
New York's Central Park were exonerated after DNA tests implicated another man
who later confessed.
But it wasn't just Hayes' confession that doomed him, defense attorneys believe.
In Hayes' petition, Larson offers a host of other issues that he contends led to
the conviction of an innocent person. Among them:
-- His defense attorney at trial, Robert Pastor, was ineffective. Pastor,
in a 2003 affidavit, agreed: "My representation of Travis was inadequate for a
number of reasons. . . . I told the court when my trial continuance motion was
denied that I was being forced to try a case of 2nd-degree murder from the hip,
that I was ill and unprepared, and that was what they forced me to do."
-- Prosecutors withheld evidence that could have cleared Hayes. That evidence
included witness statements, a supplementary police report and the DNA evidence
that excluded Ryan Matthews as the killer.
-- Prejudicial evidence was allowed into the trial in violation of Hayes'
constitutional rights. That evidence included a portion of Hayes' statement in
which he said he smoked marijuana on the night of the killing and another
portion in which he mentioned being "in jail," a reference to a juvenile prison
sentence Hayes served for cocaine possession.
In its written response to the defense motion, prosecutors confronted the
objections one-by-one, shooting down each with the argument, "This claim should
be dismissed as it is procedurally barred."
Another man's DNA
For the most part, the technical arguments in the case are lost on Hayes' loved
ones. What is not lost is the fact that DNA evidence cleared Ryan Matthews,
discredited Hayes' so-called confession and implicated another man.
After spending more than $35,000 on DNA tests, prosecutors found that the only
DNA on the ski mask left behind by the killer belonged to Rondell Love, who has
admitted that he has never met Hayes or Matthews. Love is now serving 20 years
in prison for manslaughter for slashing a woman's throat in Bridge City, a crime
that occurred eight months after the Vanhoose killing.
To support its theory that Love is the real killer, the defense team has
referred to several witnesses who say Love bragged about the crime. In the
defense petition, Troy Abrons recalls a conversation with Love: "He said the man
(Vanhoose) said some 'smart-assed s- - -,' so Rondell shot him. He said the man
wouldn't give him any money."
Family members said it didn't take DNA evidence to convince them of Hayes'
innocence. Hayes, who stands just over 5 feet tall and weighs about 110 pounds,
had never so much as been in a fight, much less a serious act of violence, they
said. Hayes, a special education student and eighth-grade dropout, was easy to
lull into a false confession, they said, because he was always a follower,
always eager to please.
"He was always a real meek, well-mannered person. We knew right away it was a
ridiculous charge," said one of his aunts, Dolores Parker.
Another aunt, Doris Forte, said she knew Hayes was innocent as soon as she heard
about the car window contradiction and the "faded, raggedy old shirt" that
witnesses said the killer tossed from the window along with the ski mask.
"Neither of those boys would have been caught dead in a rag like that," she
said. "They were always clean and pressed."
Hayes' mother, Juanita, is a woman of few words and, like her son, a slow
learner. She has a hard time following the details of the case, but she knows
this: Recent events have almost made it too painful to visit her son in prison.
"When it's time to go, I just can't stand to leave him like that," she said. "My
son is innocent. Why can't they stand up and tell people they were wrong?
Somebody needs to fix this mistake."
Larson said his client isn't the only victim in the case. The position of the
district attorney's office has "revictimized" Vanhoose's family, he said.
Vanhoose's relatives could not be reached for comment. Last year, Vanhoose's
son, Rocky, supported attempts by prosecutors to keep Matthews on death row. But
mostly he spoke about the emotional trauma of seeing the case reopened.
"I can't even use my regular thought process because I feel bombarded," Rocky
Vanhoose was quoted saying during Matthews' appeal process.
The Jefferson Parish district attorney's office, Larson said, can do a lot
to help ease the pain of the Vanhoose family.
"We know who's responsible for this murder," Larson said. "Why they're keeping
an innocent man in prison instead of going after the real killer is a travesty."
Even some of the jurors who convicted Hayes are concerned. Five of them have
signed sworn statements, submitted with Hayes' petition, that the DNA test
results would have made a difference at trial.
"I think a new jury should look at this new evidence," stated one of the jurors,
George Lorio. "I don't want anyone to stay in jail who is not guilty."
Another juror Lawrence Aucoin, stated, "I have been shown the papers on the DNA
evidence that there is now someone else who did the crime. We should have been
told about that. I can guarantee you the result of the trial would have been
To Larson and the Innocence Project investigators, working on the case as
volunteers, the injustice is compounded by the fact Matthews is a free man. In
an ironic twist of the legal system, Matthews' conviction, for first-degree
murder, was easier to undo because he was on death row, giving him more appeal
avenues and more resources than someone sentenced to life in prison.
"It is a sad state of affairs," said attorney William Sothern, who represented
Matthews for the Capital Appeals Project, "that in order to get exonerated, a
man first needs to be sentenced to die."
"Travis is like a forgotten man," Maw said. "There almost seems to be a feeling
that somebody who is serving a life sentence has gotten off easy, so what are
they complaining about? Well, natural life is not a light sentence. And for
someone who is innocent, it's torture."
JUSTICE FOR WALTER BARTON - INNOCENT FROM DEATH ROW
What the heck is happening to American Justice? The USA USED to be the country
that we all looked up to, all respected, all aspired to. No more. Justice has
become known as "Just Us" in abolitionist and reform circles - referring to the
Good Old Boys Network that some of the prosecutors seem to work within.
This is not about Justice for Travis Hayes, and certainly not for Tommy
Vanhoose. This is about the prosecutors viewing the conviction as some form of
"Brownie point" and not proven wrong in their actions. You can jazz it up
under legal restrictions as much as you like - that doesn't change the fact that
when you DELIBERATELY withhold evidence that can prove someone's innocence, and
then hide behind the word of the law to make sure that person stays convicted -
you're an egotistical, immoral sleazebag who doesnt deserve to have the
privilege of serving the law you're supposed to uphold.
What would be justice? At least considering Travis Hayes situation, in relation
to Ryan Matthews - that evidence in Ryan's case is surely correlative? And then
placing the conviction on Rondell Love. In the long term - an innocent man who
is not dangerous will be held for life - while Rondell Love - the real killer
and a dangerous man who's laughing at the justice system and is going to come
out of your prison system arrogant and smug for beating this charge - will be
back on your streets. Please - let's have some common sense. The law operates
to protect and serve the people - and that includes possible innocents such as
Travis Hayes - and in this case it's going to fail dismally if this is allowed
to happen. Please at least reopen and consider Travis Hayes situation in
relation to the fact that Ryan Matthews is now free, and proven innocent, and
you have known knowledge of the real killer BRAGGING about what he's done.
Anything else is not justice, and is a sad reflection on America, and
the American Justice system.