Cook: Do not execute Jesse Mathews

Cook: Do not execute Jesse Mathews

June 20th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

If convicted of killing Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin, then Jesse Mathews deserves to die.

The pain and black-hole suffering weighing down on the Chapin family should fall on no one's shoulders in this lifetime. No one, not once.

On Tuesday in Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom, as pretrial motion hearings ended, Chapin's father had to be helped up out of the second-row pew, barely able to walk on his own, as if the family's grief was made manifest in his body.

So it bears repeating: If found guilty, then Jesse Ray Mathews, 27, deserves to die.

But Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox should not seek the death penalty.

And Tennessee should not execute him.

Because doing so will put the Chapin family on a long and difficult road that may get even worse before it gets better.

If it ever gets better.

"If [Mathews] gets a death penalty, it's going to come back and come back and come back. It really is a burden on the family. It goes on for years,'' said Don Dawson, Tennessee's post conviction defender, whose office serves death-row prisoners in the appeals process after their initial conviction.

Tuesday's pretrial motion hearings began at 1:37 p.m. -- when Mathews shuffled in, chained at the waist and wearing a red jail jumpsuit -- and ended nine minutes later.

The atmosphere was heavy and quiet, like a funeral. People spoke softly, the humming air conditioner as loud as the voices of Steelman and the gray-suited attorneys. Police officers, eight in all, were stationed at corners of the room. Some stood with arms crossed, all with stoic faces.

The Chapin family sat on the second row, Mathews not 10 yards away. News cameras filmed near the door. You could hear the chains on Mathews' prison jumpsuit jangle as he shuffled out, surrounded by police.

The trial, beginning in January 2013, will last weeks, if not months. If Mathews is found guilty and sentenced to death, the long road of appeals begins.

"There's going to be news each time. The family may have to testify again and go through the trauma all over again,'' said Dawson.

"Do you want to relive this every five years?"

After a death penalty conviction, a prisoner automatically receives a hearing at the Tennessee Court of Appeals followed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, he said. It's possible the sentence will be reversed. If not, Dawson's office begins work on another full investigation.

He named at least eight possible appeals that could take place after the initial conviction.

"After 20 years of working with this issue and seeing what happens to victims' families, I can say the death penalty is going to revictimize them,'' said Sister Helen Prejean.

Prejean is the author of "Dead Man Walking," which tells the story of her work with Matthew Poncelet, a death row prisoner in Louisiana. A fierce death penalty opponent, Prejean has served as spiritual adviser to at least five death row inmates.

"[Mathews] is a human being who's done a terrible crime which we hate and are outraged over,'' she said. "But that is not all there is to this man. There is more to him.''

Killing Mathews, she said, only makes things worse.

"The state is imitating the worst possible behavior a human can do,'' she said. "Which is to kill somebody.''

With a life-without-parole sentence, it's done. No more appeals. No more testifying. No more press.

The Chapin family -- and every police officer wanting justice for Chapin's death -- could immediately rest, knowing that Mathews would spend the rest of his days in Nashville's Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, never able to step foot on free soil again.

And I'd wager every dime in my bank account that Mathews would take a life-without-parole bargain if Cox were to offer it.

There are 86 prisoners on death row currently, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. The youngest is 28 years old. Mathews turns 28 in May.

He could spend the rest of his life in prison.

And the people who mourn the loss of Tim Chapin would have a better chance at leaving theirs.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. You may comment on his column below. His columns will appear regularly on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and on Tuesday in an online-only version.