Alabama recently executed Matthew Reeves, a man with an IQ of 68. This score was determined by the state of Alabama’s own expert, and it is well below the 75 threshold for intellectual disability. The jury that pronounced this death sentence never heard this critical fact. Although we operate in a justice system in which it is unconstitutional to execute a person with a developmental disability, and ten federal judges, at all levels of the justice system, have agreed that Matthew’s execution must be stopped, l The State of Alabama simply pretended that these facts did not exist. and proceeded to execution on January 27, 2022.
I’ll never understand how the United States Supreme Court could have paved the way for Matthew’s execution (twice, by the way, because two separate 11th Circuit panels ruled unanimously in favor of Matthew and twice the U.S. Supreme Court has summarily ruled against Matthew). I will also never understand how the Governor of Alabama failed to act when she had one last chance to do the right thing and spare Matthew’s life. Matthew never asked to be released from prison; he only asked not to die.
Many may not wish to think of the life of a convicted murderer – Matthew was convicted of murder during a robbery – or think he should be elicit empathy, but Matthew deserved our mercy. In writing this, I do not intend to ignore the pain endured by the victim’s family, and I feel deeply for them.
RELATED: Archibald: Killing is easy, if you look the other way
I was Matthew’s legal counsel (pro bono) for almost 17 years and he was special to me. He made a terrible choice as an 18-year-old with an intellectual disability who had been raised in extreme poverty by a single mother, herself a teenager when Matthew was born. But he was also much more than the worst choice he made as a teenager. Matthew’s intellectual disability meant he was childish in many ways, and I cared about him like my own child. He was my responsibility and I loved him.
No matter what was going on with him, Matthew regularly started our calls with, “How’s the family?” He always made a point of asking how my children were doing. He sent birthday cards and Christmas cards. In recent years, as my daughter (now 8 years old) learned to read and write, they became pen pals and drew each other’s drawings. Matthew was artistically talented and loved to brighten people’s days with his artwork. He once sent me a beautiful, colorful drawing with praying hands draped over a cross.
I’ll never forget how he regularly said, “Hey, I have a question,” much like my kids do at the dinner table. I fondly remember how we joked over the years about how the Alabama football team’s season was going and how difficult my alma mater, the Michigan Wolverines were. He teased me when Alabama blew up my Wolverines in a 2012 game I attended.
It wasn’t always easy with Matthew. His intellectual disability meant that it was difficult to explain to him legal concepts and procedural matters that many non-lawyers without intellectual disabilities might find difficult. Our legal team often explained to him four or five times the relevant developments in his case and even then they confused him. He sometimes got angry and frustrated with us. He was swooshing on the phone and we could hear him mumbling under his breath. But he usually apologized quickly and we always found each other.
Matthew had pledged to improve himself in prison. Although he only read at the elementary level, he enjoyed the scriptures and the letters and Bible passages that my mother sent him. He liked to tidy up and regularly cleaned his cell, especially during the pandemic. He could be silly and liked to laugh. A few days before the state killed him, he found it hilariously shocking when I told him I had made a Michigan-themed cake for my son’s birthday. He laughed and said, “In all our years of working together, I’ve never heard you talk about baking.”
In the weeks and days leading up to his execution, Matthew expressed concern about the impact his execution would have on his family and our legal team. Even in the face of the ultimate punishment, he regularly said he prayed for us. A close colleague who also worked on Matthew’s legal team traveled with me to Alabama to see him the week before his execution. I then looked him in the eye and felt like I was talking to a 10 year old. In childish terms, he told me about one of his favorite films, a children’s film called Bringing a dog home. He was proud to now be able to run in place in his cell for 90 seconds, in addition to doing 500 push-ups and sit-ups. He knew exercise made him feel good, but he looked at me in wonder – and I’m not sure he understood – when I explained the release of endorphins in the brain. He was worried about another prisoner with a serious health problem who had been transferred to another prison. Matthew had tried to help him and feared the inmate had no one to watch over him. Matthew wanted to find a way to help the inmate. He had also told the younger members of his family to make good choices and not follow his path.
When I last spoke to Matthew, four hours before his execution, he told me he had drawn a snowy owl for my daughter (his favorite animal) and had to give it to an officer to the poster. He told me to tell my kids to be nice, and he hoped to hear from them soon. He also took the time to express his appreciation for all that our team had done for him. At the end of that last call, not knowing what might happen, I told him that we – our team of lawyers who had approached him – loved him and he said he loved us too. He told me he hoped he could call me tomorrow and that we would talk soon.
At approximately 7:25 p.m. on January 27, 2022, the United States Supreme Court – without a word of explanation – overruled a federal district judge who had written a 37-page order granting an injunction restraining Matthew’s execution because problems related to his intellectual disability. , and a unanimous 11th Circuit panel that drafted a 27-page order affirming the injunction. I immediately contacted the governor’s office regarding the clemency petition we had submitted on Matthew’s behalf several days earlier. I asked then and earlier for the opportunity to speak directly to the governor. I’ll never know how much time, if any, the governor spent reading Matthew’s clemency petition, but I believe anyone who read it with an open heart would understand Matthew’s disability and his humanity.
Within two hours of the United States Supreme Court ruling, Matthew was gone and my heart and the hearts of his family and the many people who loved and cared for him were broken. Despite his intellectual disability, he did not even have the opportunity to speak to his lawyers to understand what had happened.
I am sad and angry. I am devastated to never hear his voice again. We must learn from the sad end of Matthew’s life and not repeat the egregious mistakes and failings that led to his execution. I pray – and I hope you will pray with me – that we will never execute another intellectually disabled person in Alabama or anywhere else in our country.
Jodi Lopez is a partner at Sidley Austin LLP and represented Matthew Reeves for 17 years.