published Sunday, October 28th, 2012

David Cook: Bury Jesse Mathews by keeping him alive

His name has appeared in at least 92 news reports and headlines in this newspaper alone since 2001.

He doesn't deserve the 93rd. No more attention. No more press. No more, so I won't even write his full name. Just call him Duane.

But his story -- evil, tragic, still unfolding -- needs to be told once more.

Eleven years ago, Duane killed a Chattanooga cop. At the end of his trial -- two years after the murder -- he was sentenced to die. Execution in Nashville was scheduled for May 2010.

Today, Duane is still alive. Eleven years after shooting a policeman. Nine years after his trial. Two years after his scheduled execution.

And because he's so good at manipulating the appeals process that Tennessee death row prisoners receive, he may remain alive for years to come. Making headlines. Sucking the victim's family and friends back into the black hole. Perverting, prolonging justice.

The same thing could happen if Jesse Mathews is sentenced to die.

In the spring of 2011, Mathews was arrested in the shooting death of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin. (So far, Mathews has appeared in more than 70 Times Free Press reports and headlines).

His trial is scheduled to begin in early 2013 and end several weeks later. A guilty verdict is predicted. If he's sentenced to death, his execution would not occur until 2020. Or 2030. Or even 2040.

There are 85 prisoners (46 white, 36 black, 1 Hispanic, 1 Native American, 1 Asian; 84 men, 1 woman) on Tennessee's death row, and more than 60 have been awaiting execution for more than 10 years. Some have been on death row for 20 years. For 30.

One man since 1978.

Between the end of his trial and possible scheduled execution, Mathews will begin the complicated and lengthy post-conviction appeals process (Duane plays it like a charlatan, claiming incompetence, hiring new lawyers, firing old ones.) Each time, headlines, attention, wounds relived.

But if Mathews is convicted and offered life without parole -- and assuming he accepts -- his complicated and twisted timeline becomes immediately different.

He goes to jail for the rest of his life. For life. Without parole.

And you never hear from him again. Ever.

This is not to say the ground he ripped up in the Chapin family will ever be the same. His violence will live on and on.

But it won't be relived -- the wound made fresh again -- each time there is a new trial, appeals hearing or headline.

The American death penalty system is more fragile than ever. Seventeen states have abolished or suspended its practice, rejecting its exorbitant budget demands (Tennessee could save millions by abolishing the system) and its widespread imperfections and inequalities.

Since 1973, more than 130 people have been exonerated -- released because of their innocence -- from death row. The death penalty's constitutionality has been questioned, because the penalty is not applied evenly or fairly (why have the other Chattanoogans guilty of murder not been sentenced to death?).

But even if Mathews was scheduled for execution tomorrow -- and I say this softly, respectfully and humbly -- I think it's wrong to kill him.

It is an act of hypocrisy and eye-for-an-eye violence when the state executes its own citizens. Killing, to punish killing.

The rage directed at Mathews reveals our great respect for the life that has been stolen. If found guilty, then Mathews, without question, deserves to die.

But we still should not kill him.

Because Mathews is not a monster. Accused of monstrous acts, but not a monster. Even the worst among us -- guilty of crimes that belong in the seventh circle of hell -- remain endowed as human beings. If only in the slimmest and thinnest of ways, Mathews remains a part of the human family.

And human beings -- from Mathews and Duane to you and me -- still possess some worth, endowed with value, that our actions can't erase.

There is more to Mathews -- to all of us -- than his worst crime and his most evil act.

Mathews doesn't understand that.

But we should.

about David Cook...

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 ...

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fairmon said...

Our legal system over time has become very convoluted. In cases such as this and others where there is "zero doubt" of the crime the only trial should be to determine the penalty. lawyers approve of the complexity and need for hours of their services while legislatures, many being lawyers, have made sure the system requires the most expensive process possible. His heinous crime deserves his prompt execution regardless of mom's or any other influence on his behavior.

October 28, 2012 at 6:35 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

Repaying evil with evil can only diminish us spiritually, seldom if ever giving an aggrieved person rest. It is pretty clear from death penalty cases around the country that many innocent persons are executed in the rush to avenge a killing. "Zero doubt" is a nice, theoretical idea that is impossible to put into practice; and even if it could be, who is in a position to condemn? People seem to forget that a founding idea of jurisprudence in the USA is that it is better a few guilty go free than an innocent person be jailed (or executed).

October 28, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.
jesse said...

Equating an execution for a heinous crime to an act of barbarism is a step backwards in which the criminals life is more valuable than the victims! Execution is the method by which we secure the value of the victims life by laying claim to the life of the criminal

October 28, 2012 at 9:54 a.m.

I don't want the state being authorized to take lives.

I can accept excusing individuals, though that has its problems, but as an active institutution, I pass on that.

And no, an execution does not give any value to the life of a vtim, especially as long as mistakes are inevitably made.

October 28, 2012 at 6:10 p.m.
aae1049 said...

The arrogance of stating how victims feel. How many family members do you folks have that were murdered? Your tune would change in a minute. In fact, many families contemplate whether the perpetrator should make it to court. It is a common thought of parents of child victims.

The victims of perpetrators on death row, typically cannot speak. I strongly favor death sentences for child predictors, and people that intentionally murder police. I would favor legislation to speed up the process.

Reasonable people agree. Your problem is lack of exposure to child victims. You would change your mind.

October 29, 2012 at 11:58 p.m.
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