After spending more than seven years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, a Denton man graduated from Texas Woman’s University Saturday.
Ryan Matthews was just 17 years old when he was arrested in Louisiana for the murder of a grocery store clerk.
Though he maintained his innocence, he was convicted two years later and sentenced to death row.
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He stayed there for five more years before DNA testing proved his innocence and he was exonerated.
Matthews said it was just two months after his release that he completed his GED.
“There were a lot of obstacles, but I kept it in the back of my mind that that’s what I wanted to do. That was my ultimate goal, finish school,” Matthews said.
He went on to find employment, a challenge for an exoneree with an arrest record that’s permanently stained.
He also relocated to Texas, got married and had four kids. Still, continuing his education remained front of mind.
After he started school at North Central Texas College, Matthews took a few years off before he enrolled at Texas Woman’s University.
“I had a lot of people rooting for me, you know, and I didn’t want to let them down. I wanted to show them it’s possible. That’s why whatever happened, I just kept on going,” he said.
Saturday, that support group got the chance to finally watch the moment they’d waited nearly two decades for, as Matthews was recognized in front of his class and handed a business degree.
“It’s beyond my understanding. It really and truly is. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’m just lying in bed thinking, ‘Wow. Look where we came from.' I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” Matthews' sister Monique Coleman said. “It seems like just yesterday I was yelling in a courthouse, you know expletives, after my brother was being convicted. I was so distraught. And so to be here, I don’t know. It’s just really strange. I’m just not in a position yet to put into words. I just can’t believe it.”
Matthews, Coleman and their mother have made TWU something of a family affair these last few years. In addition to Matthews’ degree, Coleman is pursuing a doctorate while their mother just completed her first semester of social work classes.
Coleman’s hoping to become an advocate to help other exonerees reintegrate into society, just like she’s helped her brother do. As they celebrate his recent accomplishment, she says his future’s still full of challenges.
“This is just the beginning. Ryan still has an arrest for capital murder on his arrest record, and it will be there for the rest of his life. So people need to know we have a journey ahead,” Coleman said.
Matthews said he hoped to eventually return to school for a masters degree and pursue a career in accounting and finance.