published Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Chapins held killer's life in their hands

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman discusses terms of a plea bargain with Jesse Mathews on Friday. Mathews will serve life without parole plus 25 years for the 2011 shooting death of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman discusses terms of a plea bargain with Jesse Mathews on Friday. Mathews will serve life without parole plus 25 years for the 2011 shooting death of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MATHEWS MOVED

Jesse Mathews was transported to the Morgan Correctional Complex immediately following his hearing Friday, according to jail officials. The facility is a medium-security prison with 120 beds designated for maximum-security inmates. The prison can house 2,441 inmates. Its 2009 expansion served to replace the nearby Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, which was closed at that time.

Source: Hamilton County Jail and Morgan County Correctional Complex

For a story that began with such a maelstrom of violence — police sirens, shouts and gunfire — the ending was as quiet as a cemetery.

A widow wept.

Twenty months had passed since her husband, a beloved local police sergeant, was shot to death.

Now Sgt. Tim Chapin's killer stood before the court one last time and listened along with a packed courtroom as District Attorney Bill Cox described the hell Jesse Mathews unleashed on April 2, 2011.

With clinical precision, Cox recounted how police responded to a robbery at the U.S. Money Shops on Brainerd Road that day, and Mathews began firing a .45-caliber pistol, wounding Officer Lorin Johnston.

The robber fled through a side door of the building, trying to reach his car, which held an assault rifle and 76 rounds of ammunition.

Then Chapin arrived in his patrol car. Mathews fired a shot into the sergeant's windshield. Chapin struck the shooter with his car, knocking Mathews to the ground.

The .45-caliber pistol lay out of Mathews' reach.

Thinking him unarmed, Chapin drew his Taser, firing and striking Mathews in his bulletproof vest as he rose.

Mathews drew a concealed .40-caliber pistol, and Chapin dropped the Taser and drew his handgun.

With just a few feet separating the two, they exchanged fire.

Chapin emptied his handgun, all nine rounds.

But Mathews' weapon held 13.

One of those rounds struck Chapin in the head, ending his life.

As Cox finished describing the crime, the sergeant's wife, Kelle Chapin, cried and leaned into her mother's shoulder.

But for all the loss the family had suffered, they were more than just victims in this courtroom. Though the prosecutor said all along that he wanted the death penalty for Mathews, Cox had given the Chapin family the final moral authority:

To grant mercy. Or not.

All that was left was to hear what the killer had to say.

•••

Court hearings for Mathews had taken on an almost ritualistic feel.

Local media camped outside the courtroom before each proceeding.

Additional security, sometimes as many as nine officers, lined the courtroom walls, each staring at Mathews as he entered in chains.

Before each event Chapin's family gathered in the prosecutor's office and silently entered the courtroom, always sitting together, filling an entire row.

Each time, Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman heard from Cox and Neal Pinkston, the prosecutors, and Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss, Mathews' defense attorneys.

And all the players faced an almost endless repetition of this scene if Mathews had gone to trial.

All but the family traveled to Nashville in early November to screen potential jurors. The group would have returned there for a week-long jury selection before beginning what some estimated would be a monthlong trial here in Chattanooga.

If convicted and sentenced to die, Mathews would have had the right to an automatic appeal. Similar cases often stretch decades before all appeals are exhausted.

That's decades for the family to hear over and over again how their husband, father, son and brother was killed. Often, that can be enough to convince a family to let the killer live.

Cox said Friday that the decision to accept a plea and a sentence of life without parole was a lengthy process for the family.

"These things are never quick," Cox said. "Especially with any case of this magnitude."

Less than a day before the hearing, members of Chapin's family who had wanted to see Mathews die relented and agreed to let him plead guilty.

•••

Defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge had remarked in court about the extensive preparation needed for a death penalty trial.

Within a year of taking the case, Davis and Hoss had filed more than 50 motions. One of those requests landed in federal court and threatened to halt the pending trial indefinitely.

Mathews' mother, father, sister and sister's boyfriend were arrested shortly after he killed Chapin. They were charged in federal court with helping Jesse Mathews when he fled Colorado, and all pleaded guilty.

His mother, Kathleen Mathews, received 30 years in prison and was characterized by federal prosecutor Steve Neff as an evil manipulator who had significant control over her son's criminal behavior.

Davis and Hoss requested that Neff be interviewed and his testimony available for their client should he be found guilty.

The attorneys planned to show that evidence to a jury, hoping it would convince them not to put Mathews to death.

U.S. Attorney Bill Killian refused to allow Neff to testify. Davis and Hoss asked a federal judge to intervene and compel the testimony.

The same judge who sentenced the Mathews family, U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice, was assigned the case.

Mathews' attorneys asked that he also testify and recuse himself from hearing the issue.

Mattice recused himself but denied requests that he testify.

Davis had told Steelman that he couldn't go to trial until that issue was resolved. Legal experts said that appeals by both sides of whatever decision was reached in federal court could delay the trial by more than a year.

But when Steelman asked Mathews on Friday, "How do you plead?" Mathews ended the sad story with one word: "Guilty."

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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