Witness battle won't delay Mathews' death-penalty trial - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Witness battle won't delay Mathews' death-penalty trial

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- More than a year-and-a-half after Chattanooga Police Sgt. Tim Chapin died in a gun battle with a robbery suspect outside a pawn shop, his family has assurances that his accused killer will go to trial as scheduled, in January.

Criminal Courts Judge Barry Steelman has taken a defense motion for delay, only 'under advisement', for now. That likely makes the case against Jesse Mathews more complicated.

"It is not possible for us to both prepare (a federal) case and be fully prepared for a death penalty case," Mathews attorney, Lee Davis, told Judge Steelman Friday.

Mathews faces the death penalty if convicted of killing Sgt. Chapin April 2, 2011.

Davis has filed suit in U.S. District Court to compel Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Neff to provide testimony or a deposition as a 'mitigating witness' in the sentencing phase should the jury find Mathews guilty of murder.

Specifically, Mathews lawyers believe Neff can help show that Mathews' mother, Kathleen, was pulling her son's strings, psychologically and emotionally. "That's the box we find ourselves in," Davis told Judge Steelman. "In most cases, we could talk to the man's family. They'd be voluntary witnesses, cooperating witnesses."

Except Kathleen, Mathews' father Ray, and sister Rachel all are serving time in federal prison after striking plea deals that they helped him elude justice and conduct a multi-state robbery spree when he walked away from a work-release program and halfway house in Colorado several months before Sgt. Chapin was shot to death.

"We need to remember that if any of these individuals had done the right thing, prior to April 2nd, we would still have Sgt. Chapin," Neff told reporters after the plea deals were announced in September 2011. Kathleen Mathews got thirty years.

In sentencing memoranda and in open court, Neff argued that she "personifies evil" and possesses "the abilities to manipulate and influence others to do evil."

The sentencing memoranda asserts Mathews' mother was such a criminal manipulator that he and the rest of the family "take their cues from her" and that his alleged crime spree was "like a dog bringing his kill to his master for approval."

"We feel he (Neff) is the evidence that is most relevant, the most reliable to his mitigation."

U.S. Attorney William C. (Bill) Killian has denied Davis' request to interview Neff. He has filed a motion to squash, citing 'sovereign immunity'. District Attorney General Bill Cox has argued that Neff's deposition or testimony would offer only an opinion, not solid evidence.

Davis expects Killian to appeal if federal courts compel Neff to testify. Likewise, he says, the defense would appeal were the court to side with Killian. "I expect both (sides) would act with urgency," Davis told Judge Steelman. "But the process could take 90 days, or a year."

Judge Steelman proposed settling the issue himself. "Hypothetically, if I ruled (Neff's testimony or deposition) was not admissible, would that end it?" he asked Davis.

"I don't have an answer to that question," Davis replied. "I'm sure it could be quite damaging."

Davis cited court rulings that require the defense to present mitigating testimony in death penalty cases. "Not to have it, could provide the basis for reversible error," Davis told the court.

Judge Steelman neither granted Davis' motion for a continuance, nor ruled whether he'd allow Neff's testimony.

For now, the case remains on schedule. The jury will be selected in Nashville. Questionnaires for prospective jurors are due November 7. Mathews' trial is set to begin January 22.

Judge Steelman's gag order remains in effect.

Through all of Friday's proceedings, Mathews sat cuffed, shackled, and stone-faced.

Sgt. Chapin's widow and other family members betrayed little emotion as they watched, and left the courtroom in silence.

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