DENTON, Texas — At 17 years old, Ryan Matthews was wrongly accused of killing a man. Two years later, he was sentenced to death. Now, at age 39, he’s graduating from college.
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In April 1997, a man in a ski mask shot and killed the 43-year-old owner of Comeaux’s Market in Bridge City, Louisiana, right across the river from New Orleans.
Investigators thought Matthews, a black teenager, killed the white business owner, and he was later found guilty by one black juror and 11 white jurors, WFAA in Dallas reported.
Activists rallied, and his family fought. DNA evidence eventually proved their case, and the real killer confessed.
After five years on death row, Matthews was exonerated, set free, and moved to Texas.
“All these years ago when I first came home, a reporter asked me what I wanted to do, and I told them I wanted to go to school,” he said.
And he followed through on that promise to himself. On Saturday, Matthews graduated from Texas Woman’s University in Denton with a bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences.
Moved by Matthews’ story, his sister and 71-year-old mother also enrolled in the university.
“So I decided to go back and pursue my Ph.D. because hopefully, I’ll be able to do some legislative work and get some of that wrongful conviction and reintegration legislation changed,” said Monique Coleman, Matthews’ sister.
His mother, Pauline, said she’s “proud, proud, proud” as she could be.
Matthews said he can feel bitter about his experience, though his feelings are nuanced.
“I am because of what happened, but I can’t because it would stop me from moving forward … I’m trying to be the best I can be,” he said.