Inmate freed 2 years after codefendant

Times Staff Writer

A man imprisoned as the getaway driver in a Louisiana murder case was released Wednesday -- nearly two years after the man he allegedly helped was set free because of new DNA evidence.

Jefferson Parish District Judge Henry Sullivan said Travis Hayes was entitled to a new trial because his case was "inextricably joined" with that of codefendant Ryan Matthews, who was originally convicted in the killing of the owner of a grocery store.

Hayes, now 26, has served nine years of a life sentence on a conviction of second-degree murder.

No physical evidence linked Hayes to the crime. DNA tests on a ski mask recovered near the crime scene excluded Hayes and Matthews, and no witness put Hayes at the scene or in a car fleeing from it.

The DNA of another man, Rondell Love, already in prison for a different homicide in the same neighborhood, was found on the mask. Love also had reportedly bragged to fellow inmates that he had killed the grocer. Prosecutors have not said publicly why they have declined to charge Love.

Hayes and Matthews, longtime friends with minor juvenile records, were picked up by police officers in Jefferson Parish, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, a few hours after popular grocer Tommy Vanhoose was shot at his store in Bridge City. A gunman fled the store and jumped into a waiting car.

Matthews maintained his innocence from the start.

Hayes initially denied involvement, but in a middle-of-the-night interrogation, he told detectives that he drove to the store, that Matthews went into the store, and that about 15 minutes later he heard shots and saw Matthews run out. Hayes said the two drove away and that he never asked Matthews what happened. He later recanted the statement and pleaded not guilty but was convicted.

Hayes' lawyers have been attempting to secure his freedom through court hearings over the last two years. They maintain that Hayes is innocent of any involvement in the April 1997 slaying, that the getaway car described by witnesses was different than Hayes' 1982 Grand Prix, and that his so-called confession was full of answers about the crime that vary from what eyewitnesses reported.

Lawyers from Innocence Project New Orleans maintain that authorities browbeat Hayes into making the statement and that he was particularly susceptible to coercion because he was just 17 and had a low IQ.

When Matthews was released two years ago, Jefferson Parish Dist. Atty. Paul D. Connick Jr. announced that he was dropping charges after five DNA tests "failed to establish any link." But David Wolfe, the lead prosecutor in the case, continued to assert that he believed Matthews was the killer and that Hayes was involved.

On Tuesday afternoon, after Judge Sullivan ordered Hayes released on a $250,000 personal surety bond, Wolf urged the judge to stay his order pending an appeal. Sullivan declined, saying that it would hardly be fair to keep Hayes in custody, because Matthews was freed pending a new trial. He gave the district attorney 30 days to decide whether to file an appeal.

On Wednesday, Steve Wimberly of the district attorney's office in Jefferson Parish said his office had two options: File an appeal or retry Hayes within one year. He acknowledged that the one-year deadline for retrying Matthews had passed and that "his case is over."

Loyola University law professor Stephen Singer, who argued Hayes' case on appeal, said he was thrilled that his client was finally being released. "He was imprisoned for almost 10 years for something he didn't do," Singer said.

Reached at his aunt's home Wednesday, Hayes said of his release: "I felt like was I reborn and got a new life. I have to readjust to being free. It's a challenge I'm ready to meet. I never lost faith."

The defense lawyer said there was an "Alice in Wonderland" quality to the idea that Jefferson Parish would appeal or retry Hayes.

"Practically speaking, if you had one year to retry Ryan Matthews, the alleged shooter, and you didn't, why would you need one year to decide whether to retry someone who allegedly was sitting in the car that drove Matthews away?" Singer asked.


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