Three years ago yesterday, Travis Hayes was exonerated in Louisiana after serving ten years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.
Hayes and co-defendant Ryan Matthews were 17 years old when they were arrested for a New Orleans murder. DNA testing implicated another man in 2004 and Matthews was exonerated soon after from death row. Hayes, however, wasn’t exonerated until 2007.
More than one in three DNA exonerees were between 14 and 22 years old when they were arrested, and youth has proven to be a significant factor in wrongful conviction.
Learn more about youth and wrongful conviction here
In Hayes’ case, he and Matthews were driving together in April 1997 when they were stopped because their car resembled a car used by two perpetrators in a failed convenience store robbery that ended with the murder of the clerk. One witness tentatively identified Ryan Matthews as the gunman. Another identified him in a questionable “show-up” procedure after seeing the crime through his rearview mirror.
Hayes was questioned by police for more than six hours, and eventually gave a coerced confession to being the getaway driver. His version of events, however, didn’t fit with reality. Witnesses had seen the perpetrator jump out of a car’s front passenger window. That window of the car driven by Hayes and Matthews couldn’t be rolled down.
At trial, the boys’ defense attorneys presented forensic tests showing that biological evidence from a mask left by the perpetrator didn’t match Hayes or Matthews. Despite this evidence, the two were convicted in 1998. Matthews was sentenced to death and Hayes to life without parole.
On appeal, DNA testing on the mask matched the mask to another man. Based on these results, Matthews was exonerated and freed in 2004. For more than two years after Matthews’ exoneration, however, attorneys at the Innocence Project New Orleans fought to get Hayes’ case back into court. Finally, his conviction was tossed in December 2006, and he was fully cleared in January 2007.