LOUISVILLE — David Eugene Matthews may soon be released from Kentucky's Death Row after nearly three decades. And, if he is, the door he walks out of will be left ajar for two other condemned inmates.
Kentucky prosecutors are asking the full U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a three-judge panel's decision to order a new trial for Matthews, 62, on burglary charges or release him.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Krygiel, in a motion for rehearing, said the ruling was flawed and could affect the federal appeals of two other inmates who have been fighting execution for multiple decades.
A three-judge panel ruled that a judge misinterpreted Kentucky's law on extreme emotional disturbance and ordered Matthews retried or released. The panel also ruled that Matthews cannot be retried for the June 1981 murders of his estranged wife, Mary "Marlene" Matthews, and mother-in-law, Magdalene Cruse, in Louisville, because of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.
Even if convicted of the remaining burglary charges, Matthews would probably be sentenced to time served, resulting in his release, Krygiel wrote.
Krygiel wrote that inmates Randy Haight and Leif Halvorsen raised similar legal claims about extreme emotional disturbance to the ones Matthews used to win a new trial. Letting the Matthews decision stand could result in those inmates winning their federal appeals, Krygiel said.
Krygiel wants the court to take an unusual step and rehear the case. Matthews remains on Death Row at Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville while the court considers a rehearing. Messages left for Matthews' attorneys were not returned. They had not filed a response to Krygiel's rehearing request as of Wednesday.
Kentucky's law at the time Matthews went to trial required prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Matthews did not suffer from extreme emotional disturbance if the defendant produced sufficient evidence of the disorder. Such a showing meant the defendant could be found guilty of first-degree manslaughter, not murder, unless prosecutors rebutted the claim.
In Matthews' case, the three-judge panel found problems with the trial judge's legal interpretations and a prosecution argument that Matthews and his attorneys concocted the issue in an attempt to avoid a conviction. The federal court's ruling overturned decisions by the Kentucky Supreme Court interpreting the law.
Haight, 59, was condemned to death for the slayings of Patricia Vance and David Omer on Aug. 22, 1985, in Garrard County. (A Lexington policeman, Roy Mardis, was killed by friendly fire during the manhunt in which Haight was captured.) Halvorsen, 57, was sentenced to death in 1983 in Fayette County for participation in the murders of Jacqueline Greene, Joe Norman and Joey Durham.
It is unclear how many other cases could be affected by the decision, should it stand.