When he went before a judge in 2010, Patrick Matthews was a 22-year-old father of two who had a criminal record but had never spent a day in prison.
But to the office of former north shore District Attorney Walter Reed, he was a hardened criminal who deserved a life sentence as a habitual offender for the crime of simple burglary. Matthews received that sentence with no chance at parole in a state where “life means life.”
Eight years later, Reed is a convicted federal felon, though his case is on appeal. The Legislature has changed the law so that no one could receive a sentence like Matthews’ today, but Matthews himself, now 31, remains behind bars at a prison in St. Gabriel.
On Wednesday, however, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown said Matthews’ life sentence violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. She ordered him to be resentenced to a lesser term or released within 120 days.
Current 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office is not appealing Brown’s decision, although prosecutors could still seek to keep him in prison for several years more.
Attorney Justin Harrell said his client’s family is ecstatic. “At least there’ll be an end to it, as opposed to that indefinite life sentence,” Harrell said.
Although the federal court ruling hinged on the specific facts of Matthews’ case, it is in line with a larger shift in the past decade away from Louisiana’s strict mandatory minimum sentences.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 429 people in Louisiana were serving sentences of life without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses — more than in any other state.
Criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU singled out Matthews as an egregious example of the state’s penchant for sending people away for life for nonviolent offenses.
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The Legislature changed the habitual offender law in 2017 to make it less strict. However, those changes did not affect sentences already in place. With his appeals in state court exhausted, Matthews had only the federal courts to ask for mercy.
Brown agreed to adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld, who acknowledged that it was rare for the federal courts to weigh in on a state sentence. However, van Meerveld said, Matthews presented an unusual case.
On April 16, 2009, he and another man went to a house on Bayou Liberty Road in Slidell.
Police said the two men rang the door bell and asked a girl at home alone at the time if a vehicle was for sale. She said it was not and closed the door. They slipped around to the back and stole a welding machine worth $750. Later that day they took tools from a shed on Laurent Road.
The next day the two men knocked on the home of another Slidell family that was rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and stole a generator worth about $800.
Matthews might have spent a short stint in jail or prison were it not for a previous spate of burglaries he had committed at the age of 17 and 18, for which he had received no jail time.
Instead, Reed’s office decided to point to his previous convictions to make Matthews a “quadruple bill” offender and eligible for a mandatory life sentence. Louisiana prosecutors have wide discretion to invoke previous offenses in deciding on sentences.
Judge August Hand rejected a defense attorney’s request to dip below the mandatory minimum sentence on the grounds that it was excessive.
The life sentence devastated Matthews’ family. In a video interview conducted with the ACLU, his mother Catherine recalled how difficult holidays are for her family.
“It tears my heart out, to tell him what I ate for Thanksgiving, and he couldn't eat it. It's hard,” she said.
Eight years after Hand declined to call the sentence excessive, van Meerveld concluded just that. She relied heavily on an analysis from Harrell, the appellate attorney, which showed that as of 2017 the life sentence would have been possible under similar circumstances in only one state, Washington.
She also expressed shock that Matthews, while “no angel,” had been sent away for life at such a young age.
Van Meerveld said she had “no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.”
In a striking footnote, she noted that Matthews received the same life sentence as “if had he had instead kidnapped, raped or murdered” the girl who answered the door on Bayou Liberty Road.
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Prosecutors under both Reed's and Montgomery’s administrations consistently opposed Matthews’ appeals, but lately their stance has changed.
In a short brief filed in July, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Caplan replied to a question from the judge as to whether the sentence was grossly disproportionate.
“It appears that way,” he said.
In her order last week, Brown sent the case back to state court for resentencing or Matthews’ release.
When asked for comment, the District Attorney’s Office did not say whether it hopes to keep Matthews in prison on a shorter sentence.