Jemar Matthews, who is black, was convicted of murder a decade ago after a Clark County prosecutor told 12 white jurors to look at him and his co-defendant in order to find them guilty.
“How innocent do they look to you? Take a look over there. How innocent do they look?” then-Deputy District Attorney Linda Lewis said in her closing argument during the 2007 murder trial of Matthews, who is now 30, and another black man, Pierre Joshlin. Joshlin also was convicted.
The men were charged with a dozen felonies, for crimes that included a shooting, an armed automobile theft, a car chase and a foot chase. Their looks became a recurring theme in Lewis’ closing.
“What, you think they walk around the street wearing those white shirts and ties? Come on,” she said, in her last chance to argue that the men murdered 22-year-old Mercy Williams, of Las Vegas.
Matthews was found guilty of 12 counts and sentenced to life in prison. His quest to overturn his conviction was unsuccessful for years — until this March, when a federal judge ruled that Lewis’ “plainly improper” comments deprived him of his fair trial rights and resulted in a wrongful conviction.
“There was nothing for the jury to see from looking at the defendants other than that they were young black men,” U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro wrote in a March 31 decision. The ruling granted Matthews’ federal habeas corpus petition, a legal mechanism that allows prisoners to challenge their convictions.
The decision could have resulted in Matthews’ release by the end of the year, but it also allowed prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to retry him on the same charges. Last week, with the two-month deadline approaching, Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson said his office intends to retry the case. He declined further comment.
The new trial marks a stunning and unexpected victory for Matthews, whose claims of prosecutorial misconduct were rejected for years in state appellate and supreme courts. The federal habeas claim is a last-ditch legal strategy, often viewed as a Hail Mary, that rarely results in success for defendants who have exhausted their other avenues of appeal.
In Matthews’ case, it secured a second chance for a man who says he’s served 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. State prosecutors who plan to retry Matthews disagree. But throughout her ruling, Navarro highlighted “obvious weaknesses” in the government’s case against him.
Police who responded to the September 2006 shooting and ensuing car chase captured Matthews, who was 19 at the time, when he was running away.
He claims his flight from authorities was a coincidence: He feared reprimand for violating a temporary restraining order that prevented him from being within a certain radius of the mother of his son. When he noticed the heavy police presence in the neighborhood, he says, he started running because he was at a house two doors down from the woman.
“Unlike Joshlin, who was found in a dumpster with a handgun linked to the shooting, there was no evidence directly linking Matthews to either the shooting or the robbery,” Navarro wrote. “The defense suggested, and it remains a possibility, that Matthews had reason to fear apprehension by police other than — and less egregious than — having participated in the shooting and robbery.”
Matthews says it was not until a week later, when he was formally charged with murder, that he learned of the crimes for which he was ultimately convicted.
The judge stopped short of ruling that there was “insufficient evidence” to convict Matthews, but she conceded that circumstantial evidence only pointed “somewhat ostensibly” to him as the culprit.
Several times throughout her decision, she mentioned that none of the eyewitnesses who testified at trial identified Matthews as one of the assailants, and none gave descriptions of the assailants that closely matched Matthews’ physical appearance.
Her ruling ordered a new trial only in the case against Matthews. Joshlin’s conviction still stands.
10 years in prison
“Somebody finally listened. Somebody finally gave me my fair shot to see that everyone is not just guilty because this person or that person says they are,” Matthews said in a phone interview from prison last week.
His voice was heavy as he considered the draining prospect of a repeat trial.
“The court system is like back in the slavery days. People are snatched from their home and taken to a place where they understand nothing and have no control over it,” he said. “They said that we’re supposed to be judged by a jury of my peers, but I don’t see any of my peers in the jury box. None of them could understand where I come from because they don’t come from where I come from.”
Matthews had a handful of minor drug offenses, all misdemeanors, when he was arrested for murder.
“I was in a lose-lose situation from the beginning … just like anyone else with a criminal history coming from a poverty environment,” he said. He remarked dryly that jurors from different socioeconomic backgrounds would be unlikely to believe his side against that of the police.
Matthews described how his emotions veered over the past decade — from vitriolic anger, to suicidal depression, to strength and resolve after he became a Rastafarian while incarcerated.
“How do I feel? I feel robbed,” he said. “They took 10 years out of my life, out of my kids’ life. … It feels like dying without death.”
Matthews has an 11-year-old daughter with whom he has maintained a relationship and a son he has not seen or talked to in years.
Navarro vacated the conviction based on the prosecutor’s comments in closings, which the judge blasted as “harmful” in a number of instances. Lewis, the prosecutor, left the district attorney’s office in 2009. She now works as a librarian at a private school in Henderson.
During the trial, when defense attorneys objected to her line of argument, she replied: “There’s nothing improper about it. … Take a look at them. Stare at them.”
Lewis, reached by phone last week, said she left the Clark County district attorney’s office to take care of her children.
“I was a criminal prosecutor for 13 years, and my record speaks for itself,” she said. “I was a very diligent prosecutor, and I did the job to the best of my ability, trying to represent the citizens of Clark County as best I could. I certainly would not have said anything inappropriate if there wasn’t evidence to support it.”
Lewis said she believes her comments were taken out of context.
Defense attorney Todd Leventhal, who represented Matthews in his federal habeas case, described the comments as “prosecutorial misconduct of the most insidious type.”
“Apparently the state thought it was trying this case at the height of the Jim Crow era, rather than 10 years ago,” Leventhal said.
In addition to the comments that, to several court observers, seemed laced with racial overtones, Navarro criticized Lewis for arguing to jurors that defense efforts to keep certain evidence out of trial betrayed Matthews’ guilt.
The Nevada Supreme Court previously ruled that Lewis’ comments were improper, but it found the misconduct to be harmless. The state attorney general’s office defended Lewis’ comments in the federal habeas case, arguing that remarks about the men’s attire were intended to compare them to a group of youths who caused a disturbance outside.
“Judge Navarro basically carved up the state’s case like a sushi chef when she overturned the conviction,” Leventhal said. “I’m astounded that the district attorney now has the audacity to refile charges against a man who has spent 10 years in prison for a crime he never committed.”
Contact Jenny Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.