Gag (verb) to restrict use of the mouth by inserting a gag; to prevent from exercising freedom of speech or expression. — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
On Friday, at 1 p.m., I was scheduled to meet with a prisoner at the Hamilton County Jail. He had placed me on his visitation list. His attorney knew. Officials at the jail emailed approval.
And today's column was supposed to relay to you — the public, the reader — portions of that meeting.
Then the Hamilton County district attorney's office found out. And the meeting got canceled.
The prisoner was — to use a legal term — gagged.
And that means you were, too.
It's called a gag order. Prompted by the DA's office and filed Wednesday by Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman, the gag order forbids the DA's office, the defendant, his attorneys and any law enforcement officer from making "any public statements to the media."
That word "public" matters. Because this, ultimately, is your case. Your district attorney. Your judge, your courtroom, your tax dollars. And, in a way, your newspaper, too.
The identity of the prisoner shouldn't matter. The American experience is designed so that legal protection and individual rights are guaranteed to all of us, regardless of the crime we're charged with. If we're spending the night in the drunk tank or arrested for truancy, tax fraud or theft, we still have the right to speak and receive visitors.
If the DA wants to take that away, we've got some major problems in this county.
Which is exactly why I wanted to meet with and interview Jesse Mathews.
Mathews, accused of shooting to death Sgt. Tim Chapin in April 2011, is a central figure in our county's story right now.
At the time of his arrest, Mathews was in possession of a weapon purchased at a gun show. His death penalty trial will cost significantly more than a noncapital trial. If he is convicted, the post-conviction appeals process will drag out for years, maybe decades, costing immeasurably more and taxing the victim's family in untold ways.
Gun violence, government budgets and prison reform are all central to our American narrative now, and all held within the microcosm of the Mathews story.
What if Mathews said to me — in the interview that wasn't — he would take life without parole immediately, instead of a death penalty trial? What if he said he would kill again as soon as he got the chance? Or confessed to other crimes, or professed a jailhouse religious conversion?
Attorneys for the Times Free Press have begun the process of opposing this gag order. As much as we may hate him, we need to hear from Mathews. We need to debate his case — robustly — because that's what democracies do. Gagging is the protocol of totalitarianism.
I would understand if the trial was next week. But it's scheduled for next January, and jury selection will happen in Nashville. It's not as if my interview would make you sympathize with Mathews. The odds are quite good he'll be found guilty.
So why would the DA's office seek a gag order?
Because the gag order forbids any comment from the DA's office — essentially, they've gagged themselves — I'm left to speculate. Is it because they don't want to taint the possibility of a fair trial?
Come on. This is the same group of people trying to kill him.
Is it because they don't want any extra spotlight on Mathews?
Hardly. By seeking the death penalty, the DA has ensured Mathews will receive more attention over the years to come than anyone may realize.
Maybe it's because they don't want anything to jeopardize their ability to seek — and receive — a death penalty sentence.
Even if it means gagging part of our democracy.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...