62°F
weather icon Overcast

Las Vegas judge overturns 2007 murder conviction

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.

“Obvious weaknesses”

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.

Closing arguments

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 jenwilson@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Crime Videos
CCSD police on the arrest of Deamonte Warren - VIDEO
CCSD police arrested Chaparral High School custodian Deamonte Warren on Friday on three counts of a school employee having sex with a student and an additional count of providing alcohol to a minor. (Courtesy CCSD Police)
Woman charged with sex trafficking an 11-year-old girl on the Strip (Michael Quine)
Gigi Mitchell faces seven felony charges including sex trafficking and child abuse for bringing an 11-year-old girl to the Las Vegas Strip to work as a prostitute.
Bel Air Drive Officer Involved Shooting Presser - Video
LVMPD Assistant Sheriff Tim Kelly goes over the officer-involved shooting on Bel Air Drive.
Former Las Vegas police officer get 25 life sentences for sexually abusing child
Former Las Vegas Police officer Bret Theil was sentences to 25 consecutive life sentences at the Regional Justice Center Wednesday, May 15, 2019, for sexually abusing a child over a decade. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Man pushed off bus in Las Vegas - VIDEO
Las Vegas police arrested 25-year-old Cadesha Bishop on May 6, after she allegedly pushed Serge Fournier, 74, off of a parked bus near Fremont Street and 13th Street about 4:50 p.m. March 21.(Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
$1 million bail set for mother charged with drowning 2-year-old daughter
The 44-year-old mother who police say drowned her 2-year-old daughter in a bathtub in a northeast Las Vegas apartment on Saturday made her first court appearance on Tuesday, May 14th.
Officer arrested on suspicion of lewdness with a child appears in court
Matthew James Terry, a Las Vegas police officer arrested on suspicion of lewdness with a child, appears in court Monday morning, May 13, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police seek hit-and-run driver
A motorcycle officer pulled over a Mercedes SUV, and after the officer came to a stop, it shifted into reverse, intentionally hitting the officer.
Thedrick Andres becomes Henderson Police Department acting chief
Henderson Police Department Acting Chief Thedrick Andres speaks about his goals in his new position at the Henderson Police headquarters, Monday, April 29, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
2 dead, 1 wounded after east valley neighborhood shooting
One man and one woman are dead and another man wounded after a shooting Thursday afternoon in an east valley neighborhood.
Bail denied for former police detective charged with murder
Bail was denied Tuesday for former Metropolitan Police Department detective, Pamela Rene Bordeaux who is accused of fatally shooting her daughter’s ex-husband during supervised visitation with his child.
Third suspect in death of California doctor appears in court
The third and final suspect in the killing of a California doctor, Jon Kennison, 27, appears in court Friday, April 19, 2019. Kennison, Kelsey Nichole Turner, a former model, and Diana Pena, face charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Richard Cleaves of Pahrump arrested in burglary on former Binion property
Updated press release regarding burglary on a former Binion property: Richard Cleaves, 56 of Pahrump, has been arrested on a warrant for burglary, conspiracy to commit grand larceny, and destruction of property. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Judge denies bail for suspect charged in the killing of California doctor
Diana Pena, one of three people charged in the killing of a California doctor, is being held without bail after her fingerprints were found on the car where Dr. Thomas Burchard's body was discovered.
Ex-NFL player and girlfriend held without bail in child’s death
Former professional football player Cierre Wood and his girlfriend, Amy Taylor, face charges of murder and child abuse in the death of Taylor's 5-year-old daughter. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP identifies man who was shot by trooper on Mount Charleston
Nevada Highway Patrol updates the media on the April 2, 2019 officer involved shooting on Mount Charleston. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas court grants '90 Day Fiancé' defendant continuance
"90 Day Fiance" stars Colt Johnson and his mother Debra left the Las Vegas Justice Center Thursday, after the court granted Larissa dos Santos Lima a continuance in her misdemeanor case, in which she is accused of domestic violence against Colt. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Details released on in-custody death
Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank addresses media about details of an in-custody death at Clark County Detention Center on March 31. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Man hurt in shooting with Nevada troopers at Mount Charleston
A man was injured in a shooting involving Nevada Highway Patrol troopers Tuesday afternoon at Mount Charleston on state Route 157 near Echo Trail. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officer wounds inmate during escape attempt
An officer fired on an inmate who stole a vehicle and tried to flee, ramming several cars and leading officers on a chase until he ran out of gas.
Man fatally shot during a 'beer skip'
A store clerk is being questioned after a man was fatally shot during a robbery at a gas station Friday. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Las Vegas police give details on fatal shooting
Metro homicide Lt. Ray Spencer gives a briefing on a fatal shooting near downtown Las Vegas that occurred on March 27, 2019. (Katelyn Newberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas community pays tribute to boy killed by car
The community joined friends and family at Wilbur & Theresa Faiss Park, Wednesday evening, to remember the boy who was struck and killed by a car crossing South Fort Apache Road from Faiss Park, near West Maule Avenue, on Monday. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Person of Interest Found For Downtown Las Vegas Bar - Video
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is seeking help to find a person of interest in a potential homicide case at a bar in downtown Las Vegas.
Metro briefs media on OIS near downtown Las Vegas
Police address media about officer-involved shooting that started on Maryland and Vegas Valley, and concluded downtown, near the Golden Nugget.
Update on OIS at Vegas Valley and Maryland
The incident began at the Steinberg Diagnostic Medical parking lot and ended downtown.
Amy And Spencer Powell Recount Hit And Run
Amy Powell and her son Spencer recount the day Spencer was hit by a truck while riding his bike. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jeremy Burch of Tonopah arrested in Amarillo, TX
Jeremy Burch of Tonopah was arrested in Amarillo, TX on a Nye County warrant for open murder, burglary, obtaining money under false pretense, use of credit card w/o owner consent, and destruction of evidence. (Nye County Sheriff's Office/Facebook)
Metro Presser For OIS 6 (Full)
Metro police address the officer involved shooting that took place on March 19, 2019.
Metro Presser For OIS 6
Metro police address the officer involved shooting that took place on March 19, 2019.
Domestic disturbance call ends in suicide
A man died by suicide after police tried negotiating with him outside of his ex-girlfriend’s home on March 13. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
20-year-old armed robbery suspect shot by Las Vegas police
A 20-year-old armed robbery suspect shot by a Las Vegas officer on Saturday night is also accused of burglarizing a Boys & Girls Club minutes before the shooting.
Commercial Robbery On 3000 Block Of North Las Vegas Blvd - VIDEO
On February 19th, 2019, at approximately 10:23 am, a robbery occurred to a business located on the 3000 block of North Las Vegas Boulevard. The pictured suspect entered the business, approached the counter and pointed a firearm at the victim demanding money. The victim complied and the suspect fled with an undisclosed amount of money. No injuries were reported.
DEA Launches New Program To Combat Opioid Epidemic
The Drug Enforcement Administration is launching a new effort in Nevada to combat the opioid epidemic.
THE LATEST