After a four-day trial and approximately 20 hours of testimony, a Columbia County jury of six men and six women on Friday re-sentenced Matthew Ryan Elliott, 36, of Magnolia to life in prison for the Feb. 5, 2000, murder of 15-year-old Brittni Pater. The jury deliberated for only 30 minutes after closing arguments ceased at 11:45 a.m. The verdict was unanimous.
Elliott, who was an on-again, off-again boyfriend with Pater, was 16 at the time of the crime. The victim was also pregnant. He was convicted of capital murder in April 2000 after pleading guilty in Columbia County Circuit Court. The then-teenager was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Elliott’s re-sentencing trial came due to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, ruling that anyone sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile without the chance for parole was unconstitutional and violated the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Another Supreme Court case, Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, declared that the 2012 ruling should be applied retroactively, thus opening murder convictions of minors to re-sentencing.
The trial this week was not to determine the matter of guilt or innocence. But with the chance of a jury awarding Elliott a new, possibly reduced sentence -- capital murder in Arkansas carries a 10- to 40-years or life in prison -- the prosecution essentially re-tried the matter, which included the presenting of the evidence again from 20 years ago and convincing a jury of the heinousness nature of Elliott’s crime. The state’s goal was to keep the life sentence. It got what it wanted. Elliott is not eligible for parole.
If Elliott had received a term of years -- even the 40-year sentence -- he would have been parole eligible immediately after the trial. The sentencing laws require a Class Y Felony to only serve 50% of a term and accounts for meritorious good time credit in prison.
The trial began Tuesday morning in Magnolia. The jury entered its verdict at 12:15 p.m. Friday.
The state was represented by 13th Judicial District Prosecutor Jeffrey Rogers and Deputy Prosecutors Ryan Phillips and Ryan Rainwater. Both of the latter are based in Magnolia and prosecute Columbia County Circuit Court matters. Rogers is based in El Dorado. He is the head prosecutor for the six-county district.
Elliott was represented by defense attorneys J. Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper, partners at the Fuqua Campbell Law Firm in Little Rock.
The state was first to call witnesses. Its testimony began Tuesday afternoon and lasted through Wednesday. The prosecutors relied heavily upon the case’s evidence and an autopsy report from 20 years ago, as well as Elliott’s own account of the murder. The state laid out in great detail how the teenager first learned of Pater’s pregnancy in December 1999 and pre-planned the murder with his best friend at the time, 17-year-old William E. Davis, also of Magnolia, around two weeks prior to Pater’s death. Davis was also convicted for capital murder after a November 2000 jury trial in Columbia County. He he was not, however, involved in the actual killing of Pater on the night of Feb. 5, 2000. Elliott testified against Davis at his the trial.
Davis in June 2017 was re-sentenced to 40 years in prison, with parole eligibility after 50% of the term. He is no longer incarcerated.
Elliott was a student at the time of the murder at Magnolia High School, while Pater was in the ninth grade at Magnolia Junior High School. Elliott testified in 2000 at Davis’ trial, and while taking the stand on Friday, that, after learning of the pregnancy, Pater said she wanted an abortion and that she no longer desired to be with Elliott. She also said, according to Elliott, that if he did not help her with the abortion, she would tell her parents that he raped her.
"I reached the conclusion that I was going to kill her to eliminate the problem,” said Elliott in his 2000 testimony.
Elliott said he was afraid to approach his parents or any other adults about the matter but confided with Davis and came up with a “solution” that initially called for killing Pater outside her home with a 12-gauge shotgun. She lived outside of Magnolia's city limits, near Lake Columbia.
The firearm method was deemed to be too loud, so Elliott said he thought about using a crossbow but did not like that idea, either. Eventually, he decided on a 2.5-foot aluminum pole that Davis had access to and supplied him with. The plan was to “hit her in the head and kill her,” said Elliott’s testimony.
On the night of Feb. 5, 2000, a Friday, Elliott and Davis formed a plan to tell their parents they would be on a camping trip and lured Pater out of her house around 2 a.m. Elliott told her that he was taking her to get an abortion.
Elliott testified Friday that Pater was calm and carried with her a pillow and blanket as she entered his car. It prompted him to break up emotionally.
Elliott and Davis had already dug a grave at an oil-well site in the Village Community near the deer camp they said they were staying at. Davis even laid down in the grave to make sure a body would fit. But on the night of the murder, Davis got cold feet and did not join Elliott, as was the initial plan.
Eventually, Elliott neared the gravesite and pulled over on the oil well road. He told Pater that he needed to change his license plate so he would not be caught going for an abortion. He grabbed the aluminum rod-- which he had padded the handle with Duct Tape for a better grip -- then approached Pater’s side of the car and began striking her in the head. She fell upon the first swing. After hitting her 17 times total with the metal pole, Elliott thought she was dead. During the beating, she said “Matt, please” according to his testimony.
Around that time, a car with Davis and his brother-in-law, Bo Burge, who was staying at the deer camp that weekend, approached the oil site. Elliott, who was heavily intoxicated, ran away into the woods. The truck passed, without anyone seeing Pater, according to Elliott’s testimony.
He later came back to the scene where Pater was discovered still barely alive. Elliott then proceeded to run her over with his car to deal the final deathblow.
When asked by Phillips Friday why Elliott didn’t call for help when he found that Pater was still living, he said: “She was past assisting.”
After the murder, Elliott stuck his vehicle on the muddy road and ran to the nearby deer camp where Davis and Burge were, saying that he “needed help.” Elliott remained as the campsite, while Burge and Davis went looking for the car, whereupon they found Pater’s lifeless body and called authorities.
Elliott confessed to the crime almost immediately, but Davis testified this week that his friend at first seemed angrier that he was caught than he was about the murder.
“William Davis sat [on the stand] this week and said you told him ‘but not for William, the plan would have worked,’ said Phillips while questioning Elliott on Friday.
Elliott’s legal team at the re-sentencing relied heavily upon his age at the time of the murder and his good behavior in the Arkansas Department of Correction for the past 20 years.
A medical expert, Arkansas neuropsychologist Dr. Garrett Andrews, testified Thursday that the 16-year-old mind and brain are not as developed as adults, and that sometimes the immaturity affects decision-making and rational thought. And when alcohol is involved, the symptoms are exacerbated.
“It was the most he had ever drank before,” said Depper in her closing statement Friday. “He was not a drinker. He was not a partier. He was not acting rationally.”
Depper also noted that Davis “never said ‘don’t do it.’”
The defense called numerous witnesses Thursday and Friday morning, including many high-level Arkansas Department of Correction employees and teachers, a former inmate who claimed his life was turned around by Elliott, and pastors involved in ministry in the prison system.
They nearly all testified that Elliott was an upstanding person and easily one of the best inmates in ADC. One witness, Jerrod Self, a former field manager at Tucker Prison who knew Elliott for around eight years in prison, even considered Elliott to be an “exceptional” person.
“I feel like Matthew is a better person than I am sometimes,” said Self.
Elliott worked as a porter in Self’s office and was tasked with basic maintenance and administrative duties. The position is one only given to the best-behaving prisoners.
“He’s a hard worker and always accountable,” Self added.
The current housing manager at Arkansas Community Correction noted that Elliott was not like other inmates, whose main goals are to “blend in” in prison and follow the “inmate code.” The "code" includes tipping off other prisoners to surprise inspections or other information about the administration that could be shared by someone in a position such as Elliott’s.
“We put him in some tight spots sometimes, and he never budged,” said Self.
Self and multiple other former and current ADC employees said they would have no problem being Elliott’s neighbor on the outside and would associate with him.
Elliott is also known for his educational studies in prison. He was the only person that many witnesses knew of to get their GED in prison, then go on to obtain associate’s and bachelor’s certificates. Elliott earned his four-year college degree through mail correspondence classes at Ohio University.
Elliott's mother, Becky, also testified during the re-sentencing on her son's behalf. She said that, around the time of the murder, she was in a crumbling marriage and the home had many problems. She felt her son was unable to come to her with any problems. She also said that Elliott was heavily involved with his church and had begun giving small sermons.
While reflecting on her son’s actions, she was brought to tears Thursday, looking into the court audience at the Pater family, saying that he “hurt them terribly” and that “It changed all our lives" and "we feel this together.”
The statements prompted Pater’s mother, Vinita, who was also in tears, to quip back, “But you get to see your baby and I don’t.” Vinita was then sternly warned by Circuit Judge David W. Talley Jr. to hold her comments.
When Elliott took the stand Friday morning, he did not address the Pater family directly, but said at the time of the crime he “did not understand the finality of death at 16 years old.”
When Phillips asked him how many people he thought he killed with his actions, Elliott said that the only life he took was that of Pater’s, but that he thinks he destroyed “a lot of lives.”
“The impact of what I did is more extensive than I even know,” he said. “I have had new moments of realization through this whole week, even today. I hurt the Pater family, my own family, and an entire community.”
In closing arguments, Elliott's legal team again harped on their client’s case for redemption, pointing to how involved he is in the prison chapel -- playing in the band and attending services and confiding in ministers how much he regrets his actions -- and how he has bettered himself by seeking out educational opportunities and has zero record of bad behavior in prison.
Depper also reinforced how, according to the defense’s expert witness, the minor mind is one of confusion, immaturity, and irrationality, and that actions an adult would deem crazy are sometimes not seen that way in the eyes of a teenager.
“We’re talking about a juvenile,” she said. “One that has taken full responsibility and admitted his crime.”
Depper ultimately asked the jury to hand her client a 40-year sentence.
“Ten years is not enough,” she said. “Twenty years is not enough. Thirty years is even not enough,” she said.
In a rebuttal, Phillips noted that he “didn’t even know where to begin” with that he had just heard, saying that his biggest fear in the case was the passage of 20 years. He hoped the evidence and case still rang as true as it did in 2000. The prosecutor also pointed to Elliott as not a confused juvenile when he was 16, but a “cold-blooded, calculated killer.”
“This is not about juvenile or non-juvenile," he said as he faced the jury. "No murder is rational. ...The alcohol is a scapegoat. William Davis is a scapegoat.”
Phillips added: “He’s been in ADC for 20 years. He’s had Christmases with his family. He’s had the opportunity to get an education. He ‘s been able to be in the choir and the band and had the opportunity to find salvation. Brittni Pater does not. He took that from her. She’s not on this earth. He did that. Y’all have one side of the story. …He said she was going to claim rape. Guess who is not here to tell her side of the story?”
The prosecutor also pointed to Elliott’s well-praised actions while in prison.
“You’ve heard testimony about Matthew and how he’s doing good things in ADC,” Phillips said. “In the free world, things have not gone that well.”
In his final statement to the jury, Phillips recalled earlier testimony from Pater’s father, Thomas, who said that when he found his daughter to be missing on Feb. 5, 2000, he knew she was safe with Elliott.
“If she’s with Matt, she’s OK,” he recalled saying during his Wednesday testimony.
“How wrong was that,” Phillips said Friday.
After the verdict was announced, the families of the victim and Elliott remained quiet but tears were shed by both sides.
“There’s no closure for the Pater family,” said Rogers after the trial, “but maybe they can rest easier knowing justice has been served.”
Elliott still can appeal the decision of the jury trial. He now has 30 days to do so.