Jay B Gaskill
Former Alameda County Public Defender
This discussion is not about whether we should have the death penalty. It is a form of witness about how one jury trial helped form my spiritual path. There are secrets I still must keep. This was a death penalty murder case that attracted a good deal of notoriety. Important details and all names have been altered to protect the privacy of the parties. “The “Jefferson Matley” trial was from the very beginning, about whether my client would be sentenced to death.
When the Matley crime spree is tightly summarized, the picture is not pretty:
A home invasion through bedroom window in which a girl was made to give up her parent’s jewelry, then was assaulted, bound, gagged, shot and left for dead;
A few weeks later a woman burglary victim was found dead in her closet;
A month later a woman’s business was invaded at gunpoint, both ladies shot, one left dead in a closet, the other lived to summon the police;
Soon after that, a woman was killed during a burglary of her home.
These were execution style killings.
I have cut close to the edge here, because of my intimate knowledge. But my narrative is crafted so that it could have been reconstructed from police reports, press accounts, court records.
The killings had gotten blanket media coverage, television, radio and print, until the crime spree ended with a helicopter manhunt and, finally, an arrest. Jefferson Matley was a black male in his early 20’s, good looking, not someone you’d immediately type as a hell raiser or pathological murderer. Jefferson was raised in a small family by a mother whom we’ll be calling “B”. She was a piece of work and would figure prominently in the penalty trial.
A California death penalty case starts with a first degree murder charge and an additional allegation, the special circumstances that trigger the ultimate penalty. The trigger is the announcement by the DA that the death penalty will be sought. All special circumstance cases require at least life in prison without parole.
In a California death penalty case there are two trials before the same jury, the first on the guilt issue and the second, after a brief recess, whenever any special circumstance has been found true, on the death penalty question
The public defender intake file was dropped on my desk one morning after the 6, 10 and 11 O’clock news on all Bay Area channels had covered Jefferson’s arraignment. It was a skinny manila folder. Three and a half years later, Jefferson Matley’s files would fill the file boxes that lined one entire wall of my office. As was the practice, I immediately selected my second chair counsel; a lead investigator was assigned and began work. Several defense investigators worked on some aspect of Jefferson’s case.
According to the prosecution, Jefferson Matley had broken into three homes and one business, and on each occasion shot everyone there at close range before leaving with money or other valuables. There were three dead bodies and two who had been left for dead. Another way to describe these plucky survivors: live witnesses. A chilling piece of this, one I didn’t learn about for a few days: In one of the burglaries, a girl was home alone. She was tied up on a bed then shot through the torso. After a time, her would-be killer asked, “Are you all right?” Wisely she did not answer.
Ironically, I had represented young Jefferson in juvenile court, one of hundreds of cases where a kid is brought to Juvenile Hall for stealing or something else, held for a while until some parent or guardian takes custody again. There was very little remarkable about that case.
The hardened young man who was arraigned for these murders had a cautious poise about him, his appraising eyes looking back and forth around the courtroom. I should tell you about eyes. Prisoners in his situation rarely get see the outdoors at all at all. Their arrival in a courtroom expands the field of vision several fold, so their eyes dark around the expanded space. When I first met Jefferson Matley in jail– there is no other way to put it – I noticed that he had dead eyes. These eyes were attentive, but they failed to betray any human caring. It was as if there was something missing behind them. I quickly buried that impression. It would do nothing but get in the way over the next series of interviews; many talks with Jefferson would be needed to build confidence and trust. But a couple of months later someone associated with the case took me aside and said, “Jay, did you see those dead eyes? Those are the eyes of a killer.” I shrugged. I was well beyond that.
No one has quite defined the limits of mercy to the satisfaction of a death penalty defense attorney. So no biographical stone is left unturned in the hope of uncovering the key to persuading at least one juror (it takes twelve to execute) to spare the client’s life. Delay is most helpful when the time is used well by the defense. There is the matter of possible character transformation. The decision to execute is more difficult for many jurors when the defendant before them has changed for the better - no longer the “same person” as the killer. No one can really orchestrate this transformation, which – truth be told – is quite rare.
We used our long pretrial delay to good purpose. Obtaining a truthful and complete biography of someone who has had several brushes with the law is more difficult than it sounds because you are trying to get to the back story, the material that never finds its way into a probation report, news story or police report. In Jefferson’s case, it took us several weeks and a court order to acquire all of his archived juvenile records. But we did find the defense equivalent of pay dirt, although we did not immediately recognize it for what it was.
Jefferson’s mother, who I am calling “B”, would turn out to be a key to understanding Jefferson’s behavior. Now, a difficult childhood is the most common back story of almost all the criminals I’ve represented. But a “troubled childhood” is more common than many people realize, rarely amounting to enough to mitigate punishment. There are so many counter-examples: the life stories of high achievers who came from equally troubled backgrounds. Not even a brutally deficient childhood amounts to a free pass when sentencing time arrives. That acknowledged - something in Jefferson’s history seemed unusually important.
After Jefferson’s arrest for the murders, his mother, “B”, started haranguing the authorities for the return of jewelry the police had seized at their apartment. These valuables were being held as evidence in the belief that they were stolen goods that Jefferson had brought home for his mother. To the police, “B” appeared to be far more concerned about these jewels than her son’s fate. Make a note.
When Jefferson was in his early teens, he got in trouble for a number of “small” things (the sorts of offenses that would send middle class parents into therapy, but in the Matley family were a bit more like schoolyard pranks). About this time, B took up with a good man.
The man we’ll call “Abe” was a solid African American coach who had taken a special interest in young Jefferson, whom he recognized as a bright kid, with promising athletic talent, but problems in school. Abe and Jefferson quickly formed a father-son bond. Abe insisted that Jefferson buckle down, study and get good grades. But the ever mercurial B dumped Abe, then contacted Jefferson’s probation officer, claiming that Abe was a bad influence. The PO cooperated with Mom: As a result Abe was barred from contact with Jefferson. Jefferson’s next run of offenses were more serious. While in Juvenile Hall, a contract psychologist “Dr. Hall” did a careful diagnostic workup. His conclusion was striking. The family dynamic was so bad that Hall made a prediction: If Jefferson was not taken away from his mother’s influence, his crimes would be increasingly violent and all the victims would be women. Make a note.
Jefferson was committed to the California Youth Authority. His tour there would be a way station – as so often is the case with others –on his way to state prison.
But I refuse to believe that it had to turn out that way, especially if the system had been capable of following Dr. Hall’s advice. But the Juvenile system is famous for soliciting psychological advice that it is incapable of implementing. There was one more notable event in Jefferson’s life, even in Youth Authority: Another male counselor established a fatherly relationship with Jefferson. In the disciplined camp environment, Jefferson actually thrived, achieving good grades and a strong work ethic. The bond of trust with his counselor was such that one day Jefferson warned him of an escape plan. Being a “snitch” in YA is hazardous to one’s health. I am morally certain that Jefferson made the warning because he trusted his counselor and because he knew it was the right thing. As a result of Jefferson’s tip-off, the escape never took place, and lives were probably saved.
When Jefferson was eventually paroled from Youth Authority, he lost all contact with the counselor. After all, he was now a full-fledged adult in the eyes of the law. Jefferson Matley went straight to his mother’s house, the very place Dr. Hall’s report suggested would be toxic. Dr. Hall had predicted more trouble… “The victims will be women…” Make a note. As I read this narrative from the YA reports, I could almost hear the ticking of the bomb…
Soon after Jefferson Matley was released to his mother’s home, he was arrested. In a way, the arrest was a Godsend -- given Dr. Halls’ ominous prediction. It was a non-violent felony theft. Because of Jefferson’s poor performance on YA parole and his prior record, he was sentenced to state prison. California prisons are little different from those in other states; rehabilitation is left to self-help for the most part. Jefferson was sent to a medium security facility and his term there was relatively short. Three years passed.
In his early twenties, Jefferson was, once again, a paroled prisoner. Like the moth to the flame (truthfully where else would he go?) he returned to live with Mother B.
A high percentage of stranger killings get the death penalty. The victims are chosen randomly, directly by the killer, or serendipitously by the circumstances of the confrontation between victim and killer. There is little room for the traditional mitigating factors such as the prior quarrel, the sudden rage triggered by jealousy, in other words, for any of the things that allow us, as fellow human beings, to achieve some small understanding of how one person comes to take the life of another. The women that Jefferson killed were randomly chosen, a theft, robbery or burglary victim who had the misfortune to witness the crime. When plotted on a calendar, these crimes erupted in a series not long after Jefferson arrived in his mother’s home as a paroled inmate. From a sentencing juror’s perspective, there would be no reason that they would not have continued until the perpetrator was arrested. These are the things that fill the dark thoughts of a defense attorney early in the case.
A firm trial date loomed. Sometime before that, by an incremental process that escapes day-to-day notice, a change had taken place: Jefferson’s eyes were no longer dead. I began to ask him obliquely some “what’s this all about?” questions. I was casual and seemingly off point in this exploration, but I was driven by an intense curiosity. I have heard too many criminal defendants offering lame excuses, picking up the very rhetoric of moral relativism, parroting what they’d heard about the “evils” of the system. The telltale sign is when they speak of themselves in the passive voice as if there were no doer, not actor inside who is responsible for the crimes charged.
Something had gradually emerged from our conversations. My impression gradually solidified that Jefferson had reached a serene understanding of his moral situation. His insight seemed to be that it really would be understandable, even proper, if the jury and court imposed the death penalty following a guilty verdict. This was conveyed without any trace of whining, nor any sense of suicidal resignation. Yes, Jefferson wanted very much to live.
In contrast, many who face death row eventually succumb to pending execution fatigue and lose the will to live. Members of this group tend to decide that if they can’t have life on their terms – more or less outside with their peers doing the things that they’ve always been able to get away with – then in effect they say, “Screw this. Just put me to sleep.”
Of course, Jefferson hoped for mercy, but he did not expect it because he seemed to know that he did not deserve it. Jefferson appeared to really understand why he was not entitled to mercy, and for that matter, why he was very unlikely to receive it. The surest sign of an authentic moral epiphany is the full acceptance of moral responsibility for all one’s actions without excuses.
This sort of transformation is the very kind of thing you can never fully prove. Gallows repentance is always suspicious. And Serenity? Acceptance of one’s impossible moral situation? A recovery of the human light behind the eyes? You’ve got to be kidding.
I was eventually to discover something Jefferson had been holding back from us.
Ballistics showed that the same weapon was used in each incident; and Jefferson’s fingerprints were recovered. Ultimately Jefferson was arrested on a tip. There followed a series of incriminating events, one positive lineup identification, an interrogation in which Jefferson made significant admissions. And so on. This was about as grim a trial picture as it gets in a death penalty defense case. As the deadline trial date approached, we carefully reviewed Jefferson’s entire record of adjustment to custody, including in the country jail, awaiting trial. Based on his YA experience, I hoped to be able to argue at penalty phase (in the event of the expected conviction) that, however bad his behavior was out of custody, my client could be counted on to be a model inmate. In fact, his county jail custody record was a good one.
It was in this grim, grasping-for-straws context that I learned from sheriff’s personnel that Jefferson had been busy for years with religious study and reflection, and that he’d set up private worship services with one or two other inmates on a regular basis. My initial take on this was skeptical. But the more people we interviewed, the more persuaded I became that Jefferson had embarked on an authentic spiritual quest, that it was part and parcel of the moral recovery I’d observed, and that his conversion was the real deal. When I finally confronted Jefferson, I asked him why he had not revealed this to us.
He told me that it would have seemed hypocritical. Make a note.
We drew up a witness list that included the juvenile psychologist, the other elements of Jefferson’s social history, his YA experiences and the new “religious” witnesses. I was personally persuaded of the merits but I was hardly confident. Most juries, most of the time will dismiss this sort of thing out of hand- voting for execution and “let God sort it out.”
The jury trial took about six months, much of it for jury selection.
Eventually the jury got the guilt case. After a respectable period of deliberation, they found Jefferson Matley guilty on everything except one felony count, an acquittal on a questionable sexual assault charge. It would hardly matter in the big picture.
The jury was now a unified body: Twelve, cold-faced citizens who now knew beyond any reasonable doubt that the killer who had done these terrible things was sitting right next to me. I watched them as they began studying Jefferson Matley more closely. We had the weekend to recoup.
The penalty phase began on Monday.The prosecution, having already presented devastating evidence about the crimes, needed to show the jury very little more for the penalty phase. So it quickly turned to the defense to proceed. We now needed to present the whole picture, the social history of the crimes, the setting for our plea for mercy.
Any effective social history benefits from a qualified story teller, sufficiently detached to be credible, sufficiently engaged to be effective. I did not call Mother B as historian. It would have been a disaster. The social historian is often a hired expert witness with credentials in sociology or psychology who draws together and narrates the defendant’s biography, many of which also have to be independently proved. We chose not to hire someone to do that task, but relied instead on well-placed witnesses who could explain the family dynamic and help place Jefferson’s horrific crimes into a more understandable human context. We also needed to describe his later moral rehabilitation.
In this effort, we were greatly assisted by two men, both of whom were reluctant participants: the psychologist who had evaluated Jefferson as a juvenile (we’re calling him Dr. Hall); and the Sheriff’s Department jail chaplain.
The chaplain had become aware of Jefferson’s religious awakening, but had little or no part in instigating it. As a county employee, he was an ideal witness to describe Matley’s spiritual activities over the three years he was a prisoner awaiting trial. But the chaplain’s participation in our defense case trial even under subpoena was problematic because senior officers in the Sheriff’s Department were keen on keeping their employed chaplains out of the courtroom.
Dr. Hall was an impressive figure: As a tall, dignified African American man with a no non-nonsense attitude, he could not have been better cast for the role. Except…had he been on the jury, he would have leaned toward execution. Like many practical minded Christians I’ve known, Hall lived and talked a robust, real world morality, the kind of tough love / rule-and- consequences attitude shared by so many lay Christians who toil in the vineyards of criminal life (I think of church going Irish cops, for example). Dr. Hall believed in capital punishment and made it very clear to me that if asked he would truthfully answer: Jefferson Matley’s murders had earned him a place on death row. I was advised not to call Hall as a witness. I rejected the advice. Dr. Hall was the archetype of the father that Jefferson needed but never had. I decided that Hall would testify for the defense at penalty phase, and let the chips fall where they may.
The penalty phase defense case lasted into the second week. Before we called our last witness, my co-counsel remarked at the good chemistry we’d observed between Dr. Hall and the jurors. He had done a brilliant job in conveying the ugly dynamic between mother B and son, including Jefferson’s misplaced sense of loyalty to her. He’d also managed to convey his own sense of disgust at young Matley’s crimes and – without explicitly saying so – conveyed to the jury that life or death would be a reasonable penalty choice. I was still comfortable with that testimony.
The chaplain’s testimony was less effective for the same reason that Hall’s was a hit. The chaplain wore his mercy-for-all sensibility on his sleeve. I’m sure it goes with the job, but the price is an ineradicable dissonance with the common sense morality of the so called “ordinary” people. I knew that Jefferson’s fate would not be decided as a result of individual opinions or entreaties – the weeping mothers of the world notwithstanding. It would be the total gestalt of Jefferson’s case that would matter the most, and that most unquantifiable, elusive element of all: one’s sense of moral appropriateness. Ironically, the absence of a mother seemingly capable of weeping for her son would be part of that gestalt and sense of moral appropriateness.
For those jurors not totally closed to the possibility of mitigation, we had demonstrated things as well any they could ever be, given the inherent limitations of the available evidence: We showed that the horrors that Matley perpetrated were the result of a moral perversion that, however awful and reprehensible, was in the last analysis the product of a common human frailty.
We showed that young Jefferson was subject to a strange kind of malevolent duress, one that helped explain the evil that followed without materially diluting his accountability for it. We gave the jury evidence that sparing this young man from the executioner would be safe to do; that his execution was not necessary to save additional lives. We showed that Jefferson Matley had undergone a significant moral reformation, one of sufficient magnitude and authenticity that the person facing the executioner was really changed; that Jefferson’s own homicidal acts years earlier would be “out of character” for the young man now sitting at counsel table awaiting judgment.
But we knew one more thing. It would be perfectly reasonable for every juror to agree with our case and still say: “So what? Too many dead people. Too much damage to the innocent. Leave mercy to God.”
The penalty jury was out for a full week before the signs of internal disagreement began to surface. From their questions, their faces and some other hints we began to glean in the second week of deliberations that there was a slow but inexorable progress toward unanimity: they were going toward death.
It has been the experience of most trial lawyers that cases almost never hang up without a small community of dissenters, usually two or more. It is extremely difficult to hold your ground in a group without having the moral support of a small sub-group to which you belong. When the minority begins to lose members, the slide is often precipitous. The trial court, having used up six months of precious resources, was reluctant to declare a mistrial.
The pressure to reach a verdict was huge. Imagine our surprise when after two full weeks of discussions, the jury ended deadlocked, 11-1 for death.
A post jury interview revealed that most jurors thought Jefferson’s conversion was probably real, but not enough to warrant mercy. Given the magnitude of the case, one vote was far too little dissent to dissuade further prosecution. There would be more trials….
The next trial took place the following year. I had become unavailable, having been appointed chief Public Defender by the Board of supervisors. So we referred Matley’s to the county death penalty panel. Two excellent choices from the list of death penalty appointment eligible trial lawyers were assigned. We gave them everything, investigation results, the trial strategy, the full transcripts. Everything that could conceivably help the new defense team was provided. After that, the Matley defense dropped off my radar, though never out of my mind.
The second trial went much like ours had except that the jury still heard the guilt phase evidence to show them in detail what Matley had been convicted of doing and why they were being given the penalty decision.
The new team’s penalty defense followed our playbook -- the same witnesses, the same narrativves and the same theories of mitigation. …And the same outcome. I mean exactly the same outcome ensued. After a long deliberation, the new jury deadlocked as the last one had: 11-1 for death.
Suddenly we learned that the lead trial DA (we’ll call him “Grayfox”, one of their most experienced prosecutors – he looked like the DA in one of those 60’s TV series) announced his forthcoming retirement. The courthouse rumor mill went on overdrive. Surely the DA’s office would throw in the towel (allowing a life without parole sentence) rather than bring in a new prosecutor.
That was not to be: Grayfox offered to return from retirement without salary just to try this case a third time. His office readily agreed.
The following year, the third jury was selected in the case. Neither side had much new to present, except the hope of selecting a “better” jury.
Mirabile dictu, it was another 11-1 deadlock for death.
I was in my office on the second floor of the courthouse when I heard the news from the ninth floor. The DA’s office would not seek a fourth trial, which meant that the trial court would impose life without parole. In three years, 33 jurors had voted to execute Jefferson and only 3 had dissented. Had any one of those dissenting votes traded places on a given trial with one of the death votes, Jefferson would be awaiting execution on death row.
Jefferson’s final sentencing date was selected. We were told that many of the surviving crime victims and their families would attend. My own calendar was crowded those days, but I managed to stop by the sentencing courtroom early in the morning. I said “Hi” to the judge, and asked Matley’s defense team if I could see my old client for a minute. They agreed and the bailiff brought Jefferson out to sit with me at counsel table. He had his trial clothes on for the sentencing, a simple white shirt and neat slacks. I immediately noticed that same sense of serenity that had caught my eye years earlier when he seemed to be recovering from his demons. Jefferson smiled slightly. “Didn’t expect to see you,” he said. We talked for a while. I told him he’d been spared for a reason. He solemnly nodded. I wished him well. I’ve not seen him since.
But at noon that day I did something that, as a recovering Unitarian, I had never done before. I attended a noon Good Friday service. A dear friend of ours, Mary, the wife of the GTU president, was singing in an Oakland church. So Robyn and I attended services. The timing was purely serendipitous. Jefferson was to be sentenced that very afternoon.
Non-Christians might find it strange that the day of Jesus’ torture and execution by the occupying Roman authorities is commemorated in this way. But this is about hope, is it not? I found myself greatly moved by this service.
I’ve since become convinced that the narrative of the Passion and its aftermath carry a powerful, even shocking relevance for the contemporary human condition. My internal confirmation process had begun.
The next morning, I picked up the Saturday morning paper. In the City Section, I read an account of Jefferson’s sentencing. I was floored. You just can’t make this stuff up. I put down my coffee cup and reread the whole article twice.
The victims, the survivors, friends and families who attended Jefferson’s sentencing had evidently been in a long correspondence with him. He had expressed his sorrow, shame and regret for what he had done, and he did so again in open court.
Then – and the telling of this still part still seems unreal - victim after victim got up in court and … they forgave him.