False ID: Innocent man jailed in rape case
Christopher Matthew wants to go back in time, back to that Friday night before a walk near UVA landed him in jail without bond, charged with a rape he didn't commit.
Matthew's five-day nightmare began on the evening of September 2 at his girlfriend's house. In the wee hours, he left to go over to his godmother's house on Woodland Drive. "I just wanted to walk over there to get some sleep," he says. "I didn't know what I was walking into."
Around the same time, police had fanned out over the southwest side of the city following a UVA grad student's report that she'd been raped. The woman had left a party just before 2am on September 3 and was walking down Jefferson Park Avenue. At a wooded area on Sunset Avenue, a man grabbed her and sexually assaulted her. She described her assailant as a 20-something African-American male with a goatee, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans and standing about 5'8".
Matthew, an African-American male in his 20s wearing a baseball cap, a dark shirt around his neck, a white t-shirt and jean shorts, was on Harris Road when a patrol officer stopped him. Matthew sports a style of facial hair called a "chin strap."
"Albemarle County police came by with the lady who'd been assaulted in the back off the car," says Matthew. "They drove by and shone the light in my face."
The woman told the officer she was 90 percent sure Matthew was the rapist, but wanted to hear him speak, according to the police report. An officer with a microphone attached to his lapel spoke to Matthew while the victim sat in the patrol car.
When she heard Matthew's voice, she told police, "That's his voice." And when an officer asked if she was sure, she said she was positive, according to the report.
Matthew still didn't know why they wanted him, even when he was handcuffed and detained. "I thought they were looking for some guy fighting with his girlfriend," he says.
"They had me in a room, and they didn't believe my story," he says. "I said no way I'd do something like that. I said DNA does not lie, and I asked for a DNA test."
Matthew says he guesses police were just doing their job. "They made me sit there for hours, and I didn't know what was going on," he says.
Police presented evidence to a magistrate, and at 7:22am on Saturday, September 3, an arrest warrant was issued. At 7:44am, Chris Matthew was read his rights and charged with one count of rape.
"It was scary," says Matthew, who works as a barber at Cherry Avenue Barber Shop. "I'd been arrested, and didn't know what was going on. In the back of my mind, I knew I didn't do nothing wrong."
Because he was arrested on the Labor Day holiday weekend, police, as they'd later explain, couldn't deliver forensic evidence to the state lab in Richmond until 8:30am Tuesday, September 6.
Meanwhile, various television stations splashed Matthew's photograph on screen. Richmond's NBC affiliate, WWBT-12, ran Matthew's mug shot online next to this headline: "Test to see if alleged UVA sexual assault suspect is serial rapist."
"City man arrested for sexual assault: City police have not yet ruled out connection with assaults attributed to Charlottesville serial rapist" was the headline in the September 6 Cavalier Daily. (The paper has since removed Matthew's mug shot from its website.)
Some media accounts were restrained. The Progress quoted Police Chief Timothy Longo as saying efforts to link the cases were "premature." But with Matthew in jail, and the lab closed, a reputation was going through the wringer.
"That's a hurting feeling," Matthew says, "putting you on the news and saying you could be the serial rapist. They slandered my name, and it really hurts how people are going to look at me."
The state lab, which has long worked with Charlottesville police in its hunt for the serial rapist who has terrorized the area since 1997, expedited testing, and called city police at 4:30pm September 7 to say Matthew had not committed the September 3 rape, nor was he the serial rapist.
That was one day after Matthew had an unusual bond hearing in Charlottesville General District Court. After Judge Robert Downer set $25,000 bond, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jon Zug appealed that decision to Circuit Court, and Judge James Kulp ordered that Matthew be held without bond.
"I almost passed out in court when they overruled him," says Marian Matthew, Christopher's mother. "And once he was charged with a crime, they should have appointed a lawyer.
"I was devastated," Marian Matthew continues. "I knew he didn't do anything like that." She says friends and family also were "devastated and astonished because they knew Chris. I had that child there in UVA hospital." The family lived in Charlottesville for over 30 years before recently moving to Waynesboro.
"This is undoubtedly embarrassing and unfortunate for Mr. Matthew and his family," says Longo. "For that, I am sorry."
The police chief points out that 10 or 15 years ago, Matthew would have stood trial for this crime he didn't commit. "The power of DNA tells us this man is innocent," Longo says. "and we still have a serial rapist to deal with."
Longo defended the process that put an innocent man behind bars.
"When we have a victim of serious assault tell us 'I believe that person is responsible,' I have a public duty," says Longo. "What if I hadn't made an arrest, and it was the serial rapist?"
Marian Matthew is not consoled by the fact that an eyewitness provided probable cause for her son's arrest. "Let's just go ahead and say it," she says. "They think all black people look alike."
"I think it's wrong she just pointed her finger at someone when she wasn't 100 percent sure," says Chris Matthew of the rape victim. "She should have been more careful."
Dejuan Carter has known Matthew since they went to Albemarle High School, and he knows what it's like to be stereotyped. Carter also says the legal system offers little consolation for people who are wrongly arrested.
"Nothing's been proven," says Carter. "Then 'Oops, my bad, go back to the community that we just told you were the serial rapist.'
"The level of turmoil that can be caused by a false accusation is on a different level in a small community," Carter continues. "It affects more than the person accused."
The Hook's efforts to reach the rape victim were unsuccessful, and Longo says she has withdrawn from UVA and moved out of the area.
At UVA, the college chapter of the NAACP is requesting that Longo call a community meeting, says Rick Turner, advisor to the group and president of the Albemarle Charlottesville NAACP branch.
Christopher Matthew just wants his life back– the life he had on September 2. And he has advice:
"With this rapist around, I'd suggest if you're black and young, stay away from UVA. This was crazy. I don't want to experience this again."
On September 9, police arrested John Henry Agee, 37, at his Cherry Avenue apartment after the Virginia Forensic Lab matched his DNA with evidence from the September 3 rape. Agee is being held without bond.
Christopher Matthew's face was all over the local media because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The real suspect: John Henry Agee. After a DNA match to crime scene evidence, police arrested him two days after Christopher Matthew was released from jail.
MUGSHOT COURTESY CHARLOTTESVILLE POLICE
DNA proved Chris Matthew innocent. After his ordeal, he describes the pain of being falsely accused and his fear people will think he's a rapist.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO