New Trials

Last week, DNA evidence led to an exoneration hearing for Ryan Matthews, who had been convicted of the 1997 killing of a Bridge City grocer. For one man, the news means hope. For another, it's agony.



Lately, all the customers at Comeaux's have been talking about the same thing. "I hear they got the wrong guy for killing your father," they'll say to 25-year-old Rocky Vanhoose, as they put a six-pack of beer or a po-boy on the counter. Vanhoose hears it "about 400 times a day," and it hurts, he says.

Inside the walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Travis Hayes, 23, has been hearing similar talk. Hayes has a different interest in the case. In April 1997, he was arrested and charged with driving the getaway car away from Comeaux's store, where Tommy Vanhoose, Rocky's father, had been killed with a snubbed-nose .38. Hayes was later sentenced to life without parole. His friend Ryan Matthews was tried as the gunman and received the death penalty.

Then came the Monday after Easter, when lawyers for Matthews convened a press conference on the front steps of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Attorney Billy Sothern announced that they had just filed "compelling evidence" of Matthews' innocence, including signed affidavits from three people who had heard an Angola inmate named Rondell Love bragging about Vanhoose's murder.

Love had lived just down the road from Comeaux's and was sent to Angola for a murder committed nearby in December 1997, says Sothern. He pointed to a large easel chart, which showed that DNA from a discarded ski mask worn by the Vanhoose shooter was a perfect match to Love's DNA profile, found in the court record for his murder trial. Apparently, Sothern said, Love was the "real killer" here.

Each subsequent day seemed to bring more attention to the case. The Supreme Court issued a letter to Jefferson Parish district attorney Paul Connick giving him seven days to respond -- a fast-track compared to the year-long waits experienced by many appeals-level defendants. Then nationally known attorney and Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck flew to New Orleans and signed on as co-counsel on the case. "These DNA results, combined with the statements attributed to Rondell Love, raise profound doubts about the conviction," Scheck said.

The following day, The Times-Picayune editorialized that Connick "should be amenable" to a hearing on the new evidence in the Matthews case. On Monday, May 5, Connick's office concurred; at presstime, the Supreme Court was expected to add its blessing in the next few days. Matthews had gotten his hearing.

As the hearing proceeds, Rocky Vanhoose and Travis Hayes will be watching every move. Vanhoose believes the right men are already behind bars and that they should stay there. Hayes hopes that he will have a new chance to clear his own name.

Like it or not, the two men share a profound connection, says Renny Cushing, director of the Massachusetts-based group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Cushing has a connection of his own to Robert McLaughlin, who was arrested, and later convicted, for killing Cushing's father. "I don't particularly like the fact that I'm forever linked to him," says Cushing. "But it's reality."

Rocky Vanhoose finds it almost impossible to forget his father's murder. "I sit three feet from where my dad was shot to death," he says.

Vanhoose works 12-hour days, six days a week, at Comeaux's, the grocery store that Tommy Vanhoose bought in 1986. It's a small, nondescript West Bank shop, one in a row of bars, gas stations and neighborhood businesses set on Bridge City Avenue near the massive iron legs of the Huey P. Long bridge. "I am not a wealthy person," says Vanhoose. "If I was, I wouldn't still be working here."

The elder Vanhoose was well-known and well-loved around Bridge City. He knew all the kids from the Catholic school across the street; he cashed checks for workers from the nearby Avondale shipyard; he bought bicycles for needy neighborhood children. If a customer needed diapers or groceries before their check arrived, Vanhoose extended credit. When a neighborhood team lacked football jerseys, he bought them. "He did things that people are supposed to do," says his son, recalling how homeless people riding trains on the nearby Union Pacific railway knew they could count on his dad, who'd laugh at their off-the-wall stories and fix them a sandwich.

Rocky got his start here when he was 10. He filled coolers, took out the trash, mopped, swept, stocked shelves, toted customers' bags out to cars. "I was what every kid is, a go-fer," he says.

It was just the two of them, living and working together. Rocky, a good math student, graduated from high school and decided that he would work part-time at the store for a year while taking classes at Delgado Community College. Then in the fall, he'd attend the University of New Orleans to study mechanical engineering. Those plans ended in April 1997, when his father was shot. The store was closed for one week and then Rocky took over.

Vanhoose attended the trial. "I felt the same way those jurors did -- these guys are guilty," he says. He still feels this way. The recent publicity over Matthews' case reminds Vanhoose where he is, and why. "To see this in the newspaper drills this into my head every day -- I'm stuck here," he says. "I could be wearing slacks, working in an office somewhere. Instead I'm here in a business, having to handle money, taking the chance to be murdered the same way my father was."

Since the news, Vanhoose says, he hasn't been sleeping very well. He can't stop looking over his own shoulder. "I can't even use my regular thought process," he says, "because I feel bombarded."

Most people don't understand what wrongful convictions do to victims, says Renny Cushing, the victims' rights advocate. Once exoneration proceedings are announced, says Cushing, victims start all over again. "It's as though the murder just took place," he says. Over the past few years, as the number of exoneration cases has skyrocketed, Cushing's group and others have found themselves scrambling to meet the needs of what he calls "a new subset of crime victims" -- people affected by wrongful convictions.

For those who have been wrongly convicted, there's a new project called the Life After Exoneration Project, officially launched last Friday in New York City. Exonerees feel like they "will always be a step behind," says Dr. Lola Vollen, who along with the national Innocence Project initiated the program. She notes that 40 percent of exonerees lose their partners, many lose their children, and court costs often wipe out any finances. "It's a tremendous strain on the family," says Vollen.

Victims go through a different process, says Cushing. They attended the original murder trial because they needed to know what really happened. That helps them restore their sense of order -- until someone like Rocky Vanhoose has to grapple with the idea of exoneration for someone convicted as his father's killer. "Now he's confronted with a situation where the facts that he'd come to understand, the facts that helped him moved forward, have all been stripped away," says Cushing. "Inevitably, that re-traumatizes him."

As a result, the New Orleans-based group Victims and Citizens Against Crime is supportive of attorneys who work on behalf of the wrongly convicted. "It doesn't help the victims to have the wrong person," says Sandy Krasnoff, the former NOPD officer who heads up the organization.

Cushing agrees. "Wrongful incarceration just creates another crime against that person," he says. But he firmly believes that the crimes are different, because of one basic difference -- death is final. Vanhoose agrees. "It's not like, if Matthews is not exonerated, my dad is going to walk in tomorrow and say, 'Close call, man.' It's over. There is no hope."

Vanhoose says that his father had big hopes when he moved to New Orleans in 1970. He worked as a Local 60 union welder while he saved up to buy Comeaux's. "My dad never took a vacation, never took a break," says Vanhoose. "And he never will get to."

More than anything else, Vanhoose wishes that he could daydream about a future that included his father. "Because when I have children, he'll never get to throw a Frisbee or a football with them or take them to the zoo. He'll never get to retire and read his newspaper in the morning in his drawers in a lounge chair. Everything has been taken from him."

Several days before Travis Hayes was arrested, his sister handed him the keys to her new purchase, a 1981 Pontiac Grand Prix. It was painted primer gray and the air conditioner didn't work, a situation exacerbated by the passenger-side window stuck in the "up" position. But Hayes was delighted nonetheless.

He loved to cruise around in that car, say his aunts Doris Forte and Dolores Parker. On the day Tommy Vanhoose was murdered, Hayes seems to have spent most of the afternoon and evening in the car, joyriding. He stopped by Forte's house and let his cousin "test drive." He waited for his mom -- Juanita Hayes -- to beep him and then picked her up at the Best Western, where she works in the laundry room. At some point during the day, he ran into his friend Ryan Matthews. The two of them rode around, visiting friends, and smoking a few blunts -- marijuana rolled into cigar papers.

At 10:20 p.m., a Jefferson Parish sheriff's car pulled over Hayes and Matthews in Gretna. The primer gray, American-made car roughly matched the description of a vehicle used in Vanhoose's murder, and so officers took the two teenagers to the station for questioning.

More than a year later, Hayes went on trial for the murder. To Forte, it was obvious that he was innocent. "There was the DNA and the window that proved he didn't do it," she says. Several eyewitnesses had seen a masked shooter dive into the passenger window of the getaway car. At the trial, experts testified that the DNA found on the discarded ski mask matched neither Matthews nor Hayes and that there was no way to budge Hayes' window.

Even the little things didn't make sense to Forte. There was, for instance, the plaid flannel shirt worn by the gunman and then discarded near the murder scene. "This shirt, it was dirty with the elbows worn out," says Forte. "And I thought, 'No, no, no! Those boys would not wear that.' They were always both neat and pressed. Neat and pressed."

Innocence Project-New Orleans director Emily Bolton also saw inconsistencies when she looked at Hayes' trial transcript. Bolton, an attorney, recently signed onto his case because she believes he meets the Innocence Project's requirement of actual innocence. Without a doubt, the biggest hurdle in the case is that Hayes at 4:58 a.m. -- after roughly six hours of questioning -- gave a statement admitting that he had driven Matthews to Comeaux's and had heard gunshots coming from the store while Matthews was inside. Bolton contends that the confession was coerced and has filed a motion with the state Supreme Court asking for an exoneration hearing for Hayes.

Barry Scheck worked on the recent Central Park jogger exoneration cases and sees parallels in Hayes' case. "How can I be surprised at one confession?" Scheck asks. "I mean, in the Central Park jogger case, we had five confessions from teenagers." Juveniles in particular, he says, can get rattled under pressure and give false confessions.

The national Innocence Project has found that 23 percent of their DNA exonerations involved a false confession, Scheck says. "There are many, many, many of these cases," he says. "It's a little-recognized phenomenon."

Still, says national false-confession expert Richard Ofshe, most people -- and as a result, most jurors -- are convinced that no one will confess to something they didn't do. "They believe they wouldn't do it, their relatives wouldn't do it, and their friends wouldn't do it," he says. For a defendant, a confession is damning. Some judicial statistics show a 91 percent conviction rate in cases where the defendant confessed, Ofshe says.

Ofshe is, however, realistic about what happens in police stations. Most people will waive their Miranda rights, he says. He also believes that interrogations are, by definition, stressful situations. "Demanding a confession is what interrogators do, and there's no use complaining about it." Physical force -- phone books, fists, billy clubs -- is rarely used in the interrogation anymore, says Ofshe. But the psychological techniques used by police are effective enough that they can result in confessions from both the guilty and the innocent.

Basically, the goal of any interrogation is to break down the confidence of the defendant over a period of time, says Ofshe. To that end, police are permitted to concoct evidence -- to tell the person that his fingerprints were found on the weapon, that his girlfriend told them he'd lied about his alibi, or that the department has satellite photos of him leaving the scene. Then, when confidence plummets, they suggest a scenario that puts the suspect in a good light.

"An interrogator is limited only by how good a liar he is and how creative he is," says Ofshe, who says that all of these practices are legal and have been upheld by the courts.

Ofshe believes that all police interviews and interrogations should be taped -- preferably videotaped -- from start to finish. Only two states -- Minnesota and Alaska -- currently require this by law. Last Thursday, the Illinois state legislature passed a similar bill. At presstime, it was on the desk of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is expected to sign it. Other jurisdictions moving in that direction include New York City, Miami, Broward County, Fort Lauderdale, Seattle and Chicago. In the long run, Ofshe believes, taping will help police, courts and defendants. "If someone is lying," he says, "we all have an interest in knowing it."

Like Hayes' Aunt Doris, the key for Ofshe is in the details. He cites the 1989 Central Park jogger case. Many of the details in the videotaped "confessions" of the now-exonerated teenagers were inconsistent with the facts of the case, Ofshe says. None were clear on basic details, like the victim's bound hands, the state of her clothing, or the actual weapon that caused her head injury (it turned out to be a tree limb).

Phrases like "I must have" or "probably" can also be telltale signs that a confession is fishy. Ofshe says he is cautious about commenting on a specific case unless he's analyzed the entire interrogation from start to finish. But to Hayes' family, several pieces of his statement seem particularly questionable. When, for instance, Jefferson Parish Lt. Steve Buras asks whether Hayes ever saw Matthews with a ski mask, he answers, "I didn't see nothing, I don't know, he was probably trying to cover everything up."

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office does not comment on pending cases, says Col. John Fortunato.

Doris Forte says she knows exactly what happened in that interrogation room. "To me, Travis was never a leader. He was always one who followed." It simply wasn't difficult to persuade him, she says.

He was agreeable to a fault, Dolores Parker says. "Travis was slow -- he never did well in school." So he was teased, sometimes mercilessly, by other kids. She remembers looking out the window and seeing other children trying to provoke him. "He never would fight," she says. "He would actually stand there and let kids hit him rather than fighting back."

"You know how Travis feels up there, at Angola?" Forte says quietly. "He's stressed and depressed." His spirits have been low for a long time, she says.

Things were a little better on the first Saturday of May, when the family made their monthly visit to Angola. Hayes was more upbeat, because of the developments in Matthews' case. But Parker, like always, left wishing that she could take him back home with her.

Before her nephew can come home, however, he needs a hearing. Parker believes it must be in the works. There's no other logical option, she says. "Because Travis and Ryan were together. They can't let one go without the other."

Today, Robert Hoelscher is the executive director of Innocence Project-New Orleans. But more than 40 years ago, he was known as the son of Ben Hoelscher, a popular neighborhood figure in southwest Houston and a manager at one of the first 7-Eleven stores. In 1961, according to newspaper accounts, the grocer was shot in the back with a shotgun by an "emotionally disturbed" 17-year-old named Gary Sizemore. The grocer's wife was widowed with six small children, ages 19 months to 12 years. Robert was seven at the time.

He can count on one hand the number of times he's spoken about the murder in any detail. He never broached the topic with his mother and seldom discusses it with his brothers and sisters. Almost no one in his office knows about it.

As a kid, Hoelscher remembers visiting his dad at the store. "That was like being in fantasy land, especially when you got to pick out something, a Coke or some Twinkies," he says. And to be there and know that his dad was the manager was almost magical.

Hoelscher puts on his reading glasses and pulls out a yellowed newspaper clipping. "I didn't know about this until I was well into my thirties," he says. The article recounts the story of how Hoelscher's mother, two days after the murder, phoned Sizemore's parents. "I know it is not your fault -- your son is very sick," she told the couple. "I am a mother. I have sons, too. Hate won't bring Bennie back. He lived by love -- he had no room for hate in his heart."

"To read this," says Hoelscher, "you'd think, 'Here was this woman of unbelievable compassion and dignity.' That's the irony." In actuality, the rest of his mother's life was "a living hell," says Hoelscher. After the murder, she slid into heavy alcoholism and smoking. Cancer eventually killed her.

Hoelscher points at the clipping. "I never saw this woman; I never knew that this person was inside my mother." Instead, he remembers a woman who had broken. Now, reading the newspaper accounts, he marvels at how anyone could pick up the telephone two days after a murder. "That she could see how this tragedy was just ripping those parents apart. It was extraordinary," he says.

Two weeks ago, Travis Hayes became the newest client for Innocence Project-New Orleans. Since then, Hoelscher has been thinking about Rocky Vanhoose. "I feel for him immensely," he says. "I can't imagine having to go into that place every day. It's extraordinary in its own way, that he's able to endure that."

Hoelscher's choice of occupation may seem odd for someone whose father was murdered. But, Hoelscher notes, more than half of DNA tests conducted come back "not excluding the people they test." That's part of the Innocence Project's goal. "To the extent that we can more accurately ID the guilty and the innocent, we are achieving justice," he says.

Besides, he says, when a murder's been committed, sorrow isn't limited to one side. That's a lesson he learned from his mother and her phone call. "And when it's a wrongful conviction case," says Hoelscher, "there's more than enough suffering to go around."

CORRECTIONS: In our May 6 cover story "Butt Out!", we incorrectly identified the author of state Senate Bill 901 that would allow local governments to vote on smoking bans; Sen. Jon Johnson, D-New Orleans, introduced the bill. Also, in last week's Arts & Entertainment feature "Spinal Chord," author David Hadju's name was misspelled. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.
Juanita Hayes poses with a photo of her son, Travis - Hayes, and her sisters Dolores Parker and Doris - Forte. The family last visited Travis at Angola on the - first Saturday of May. "You know how Travis feels - up there, at Angola?" Forte says. "He's stressed and - depressed." - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Juanita Hayes poses with a photo of her son, Travis Hayes, and her sisters Dolores Parker and Doris Forte. The family last visited Travis at Angola on the first Saturday of May. "You know how Travis feels up there, at Angola?" Forte says. "He's stressed and depressed."
Memorials placed around Comeaux's after the - shooting attested to the late Tommy Vanhoose's - popularity. - ROCKY VANHOOSE
  • Rocky Vanhoose
  • Memorials placed around Comeaux's after the shooting attested to the late Tommy Vanhoose's popularity.

Add a comment