published Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Jesse Mathews trial date is near, but ...

Jesse Mathews, accused of killing Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin in 2011, was brought before Judge Barry Steelman for a hearing Friday concerning ongoing federal issues presented by Mathews' attorneys.
Jesse Mathews, accused of killing Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin in 2011, was brought before Judge Barry Steelman for a hearing Friday concerning ongoing federal issues presented by Mathews' attorneys.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Twelve weeks to go.

The countdown to Jesse Mathews' death penalty trial has begun.

In less than two weeks, the prosecution and the defense start selecting a jury. As many as 600 jurors in Davidson County will be summoned to fill out a lengthy questionnaire on Nov. 7.

After the holidays comes a three-week rush to the Jan. 22, 2013, trial date.

But complicated workings in federal court could stop the clock and delay any trial for Mathews for a year or more.

Mathews faces the death penalty if convicted on charges in the shooting and killing of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin on April 2, 2011, during a failed robbery of the U.S. Money Shops on Brainerd Road.

Mathews' defense attorneys, Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss, on Friday asked Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman to delay the trial while they work out problems in federal court.

The pair have asked to interview the federal attorney who prosecuted Mathews' mother, Kathleen; father, Ray; and sister Rachel in U.S District Court here for helping Mathews while he was a federal fugitive before the shooting.

"It's not possible for us to both prosecute that [federal complaint] and be fully prepared for trial in January," Davis told Steelman.

Steelman denied the request for now but will make a final ruling later.

"I think we need to move forward at this point," Steelman said. "We still have time between then and Jan. 22 to decide what to do."

But Davis wasn't sure.

Even if everyone cooperates and works quickly on the case and the federal judge decides the issue soon, there would still be a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, all before the trial even begins, he said.

How long? Steelman asked.

"A year or more," Davis estimated.

As those words left his lips, Kelle Chapin, the sergeant's widow, seated a few feet from the man accused of killing her husband, sighed and dropped her head.

Time to talk

But University of Tennessee law professor Dwight Aarons says there's a better way to deal with recent developments in this death penalty case -- talking.

With potentially lengthy delays ahead if differences in federal court are not worked out, Aarons said the defense attorneys, prosecutors and U.S. attorney need to sit down and find a solution.

Davis and Hoss have asked to interview Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Neff, who said in Kathleen Mathews' sentencing hearing that she "personifies evil" and "has mental and psychological abilities to manipulate others."

"Like a dog bringing its kill to its master for approval, [Jesse] brought the fruits of his robberies to [Kathleen], which she accepted and profited from," Neff wrote.

Kathleen was sentenced to 30 years in prison; she is appealing the sentence.

Mathews' attorneys want to interview Neff or have him testify as mitigating evidence if their client is found guilty. They want to show that there were contributing factors to Jesse's behavior, specifically his mother's control over him.

Neff's boss, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian, has denied the request to interview the prosecutor, citing "sovereign immunity," a legal argument that is used to preclude federal prosecutors from being forced to testify in state cases.

But Aarons said Killian's decision was "foolhardy" and "shortsighted" and could create unnecessary complications for this state trial.

The professor said he understands if Killian doesn't want to set a precedent in which his prosecutors are called regularly to testify, but Aarons said that could be worked out by limiting the scope of what's discussed in court.

Killian declined to comment on the pending case. Mathews' attorneys filed their federal complaint on Oct. 22, and District Attorney Bill Cox said in court that Killian agreed to respond within 10 days of the filing.

Cox argued during two state court hearings last week that Neff's testimony is inadmissible. Aarons said that's premature and Davis needs to get the interview before a judge decides its admissibility.

Steelman has not yet ruled whether he'll even allow Neff's testimony, if Davis gets it. What's also unclear is how not allowing the testimony would affect the federal proceedings.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and Mathews himself are not allowed to publicly comment on the case under a gag order issued by Steelman.

Duty to defend

Mathews' attorneys cannot ignore Neff's statements or their possible source.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice in the last nine years that death penalty defendants whose attorneys do not present sufficient mitigating evidence or aggressively pursue such evidence are due new sentencing hearings.

Aarons pointed to the separate cases of Kevin Wiggins and Ronald Rompilla that specifically touched that point.

Wiggins was convicted and sentenced to death in Maryland for the 1988 rape and murder of Florence Lacs. His attorney didn't present any mitigation even though Wiggins had a history of severe physical and sexual abuse.

Rompilla was convicted and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania for the 1988 robbery, stabbing and burning death of Jim Scanlon. His attorney did not present evidence of his mental illness or alcoholism.

The Supreme Court ordered both men resentenced.

Davis said in court that if he doesn't fully pursue Neff's testimony he would be creating a "reversible error" that would result in an almost automatic appeal for Mathews.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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