Exonerated from death row, Ryan Matthews walked the stage Saturday, Dec. 14, graduating from Texas Woman’s University with his bachelor’s degree.
Matthews was arrested for murder at 17 years old after a Bridge City, Louisiana, grocery store owner was killed during an attempted robbery in 1997. Two years later, he was sentenced to death despite inconsistent witness testimony.
He spent five years in prison until DNA evidence found at the scene identified the murderer as Rondell Love, a man who was in prison for a subsequent murder he committed, according to Denton Record-Chronicle.
“You stuck in a 6×9 cell for 23 hours a day. It’s hard, but I had to stay strong, you know. I had to stay strong for my family that was out there,” Matthews told FOX 4.
While in solitary confinement, he read books preparing him to eventually go to college. And eventually, he was released in 2004, a year after DNA evidence cleared him of the crime, FOX 4 reported.
Matthews moved to Texas and worked toward completing his education.
“All these years ago when I first came home, a reporter asked me what I wanted to do, and I told them I wanted to go to school,” he told ABC 7 Chicago.
This weekend, the father of four, at age 39, made another step forward. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Texas Women’s University in Denton.
“It felt like all of my work had finally paid off,” Matthews said. “When I see this and I look where I’m at now, I’m proud.”
Moved by Matthews’s story, his 71-year-old mother, Pauline Matthews, and sister, Monique Coleman, enrolled at TWU as well.
His sister hopes to become a social worker to work on legislation for people who are wrongfully incarcerated.
For Matthews, his graduation is a culmination of one of his biggest life goals: be a college graduate, Denton Record-Chronicle reported.
“This is one of my dreams come true,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because the fact my opportunity was taken away from me, but I always thought I’d like to do this. I’m not going to prom or graduating from high school, but I’m over that. This accomplishment feels good, like I’m heading in the right direction. No matter what happens from here on, I did this. I didn’t give up.”