Ernest Matthews Is The Right Scapegoat At The Wrong Time
August 11, 2016 (Fault Lines) — In an oft-cited opinion, noted legal scholar Dr. John mused the following concerning bad luck and timing.
I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time
I’d of said the right thing
But I must have used the wrong line
I been in the right trip
But I must have used the wrong car
My head was in a bad place
And I’m wondering what it’s good for
You’d be hard pressed to find words that match the story of Ernest Matthews, jailed for six months for “resisting arrest” because Augusta Judge J. Wade Padgett felt probation was “too light” a sentence after the recent shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Matthews, previously incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, now becomes the scapegoat for those who committed atrocious attacks on law enforcement in two cities, during two completely,unrelated events.
Matthews was stopped back in May after a Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy pulled him over for a “defective brake light.” After running Matthews’ information through his handy-dandy cop car computer, Deputy Andrew Jenkins uncovered a warrant for Matthews’ arrest in South Carolina.
When Ernest Matthews learned he would be arrested, he shouted “hell no,” and whiffed a couple of punches in the air at Jenkins and Corporal William Hensley. Matthews later apologized for his actions, labeling them “unjustified.” It’s not hard to see why he’d respond in such a manner to his arrest, since Ernest Matthews spent eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Back in 1993, Ernest Matthews, Levon Jones, and Larry Lamb were arrested and charged with the murder of a North Carolina man named Leamon Grady. No physical evidence existed to show any of the three were involved in the murder, and no murder weapon was discovered. Once a reward for information leading to an arrest surfaced, an ex-girlfriend of one of the three implicated them in the murder. Jones and Lamb took the case to trial and were convicted. Jones got the death penalty, while Lamb got life. Matthews, potentially seeing the writing on the wall, took a plea deal and got twenty years. He served eight inside before getting parole, but Matthews would serve twelve more years on parole, until the ex recanted.
Once the ex-girlfriend admitted she’d made up the story, prosecutors dropped the charges. Matthews got lucky and a civil rights firm took his case. His conviction was vacated last year. Ernest Matthews was a free man, finally absolved of the specter of a crime foisted on him by a broken heart and the promise of money. Then he was stopped in Augusta, and that meant Judge Padgett had the perfect scapegoat for the “Blue Lives Matter” movement.
Even though the officers indicated probation was appropriate for the case, Judge Padgett felt this was a good time to reinforce his “tough on crime” stance. Because Deputy Jenkins was “very careful” to confirm Matthews’ identity on the warrant, and the “timing” wasn’t right, Judge Padgett couldn’t accept a sentence of probation. This meant jail time, and Padgett sentenced Matthews to six months’ incarceration followed by three years’ probation. The question left on the table was whether the sentence was appropriate, and if Judge Padgett abused his discretion in rejecting the plea and picking incarceration over probation.
Superior Court Judge J. Wade Padgett told Ernest Matthews, who spent eight years in a North Carolina prison for a crime he didn’t commit, that considering current events – deadly ambushes on police officers in Texas and Louisiana – a probation sentence for obstruction of a law enforcement officer was impossible.”
According to the Georgia statue concerning “obstructing or hindering law enforcement officers,” if someone “knowingly and willfully resists, obstructs, or opposes any law enforcement officer” by “by offering or doing violence to the person of such officer,” then it’s a felony worth one to five years. Six months, in contrast, is a lighter sentence, but automatically branding someone a felon for a visceral reaction that caused no harm to any of the involved officers is quite a stretch. It doesn’t appear “impartial” or “fair.” It looks more as if Judge Padgett is pandering to a core voter base when his office is up for reelection in two years.
Beyond that, there’s shaky information to determine if this was an abuse of discretion or whether Judge Padgett acted in the right. Before publication, Fault Lines reached out to both Augusta ADA Ashley Muller and Matthews’ attorney, Brooke Ray, to determine whether the plea deal was negotiated with the State or if Matthews simply rolled the dice to see what Judge Padgett would give him.
According to State v. Germany, if the State agreed to Matthews’ deal, then Judge Padgett would be required to let Matthews know the judge had the authority to reject the plea deal and intended to do so. At that point, Matthews would be allowed as a matter of right to withdraw a guilty plea and have the matter proceed to trial. That information is missing, so it’s uncertain at this time if Judge Padgett committed an abuse of discretion. One thing is clear, and that’s Judge Padgett’s decision to make Ernest Matthews a scapegoat for the actions of shooters in Texas and Louisiana.
The term “scapegoating” actually comes from the book of Leviticus, and describes a procedure under the “Law of Atonement” where an animal, usually a goat, would be ceremonially laden with the sins of a community and then cast into the woods to die. The Courts are not a temple, and Judge Padgett is no priest. Ernest Matthews is certainly no animal.
By taking a man previously exonerated of murder and giving him a jail sentence because his momentary lapse of reason constituted “poor timing,” Judge Padgett made Ernest Matthews a scapegoat for those desperately seeking revenge for the recent deaths of law enforcement officers in Texas and Louisiana. With arrests for negligent Facebook posts on the rise, and the new crime of “hate speech against a cop” gaining traction, it sadly appears Matthews won’t be the last sacrificed to appease those who wear a badge and blue.