By John Gillespie
Criminal District Attorney in Wichita County
December 20, 2019, started like so many other brisk December mornings. The sun came up. The hope and joy of Christmas were near. Little 4-year-old Christian Redmond woke up for school.
He was a sweet boy, and he was excited to see his friends—and to see the guy who was making his list and checking it twice: Santa would be at his school party that day. Christian wanted to make sure Santa knew what to bring for Christmas this year: a monster truck and a new video game. At school, Christian saw his friends, ate cookies, and sang “Jingle Bells.” Christian was happy because Santa had listened to his Christmas gift requests.
But this is no happy holiday story. People whom Christian trusted and loved, people who should have cared for him, failed him.
Migel Matthew, a longtime family friend who had been at the hospital when Christian was born, had spent the morning drinking with Christian’s mother, Tyneshia Chatman. She, Tyneshia, and two of their children got into Matthew’s car to retrieve Christian and his three siblings from school. Then they took the five kids to pick up Matthew’s own daughter from the bus stop. On the way, Matthew crashed the car while going 103 miles an hour. Christian was killed instantly, never living to see Christmas morning.
Visiting the scene
At the courthouse, December 20 seemed like just another day right before the holiday. The courthouse had slowed to a crawl. A few of us went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant on the south side of Wichita Falls. We took the loop northbound on our way back. Unbeknownst to us, a drunk driver was flying down the loop in the southbound lane carrying precious cargo. When we got back to the courthouse, we heard about the crash that killed 4-year-old Christian and sent his four siblings, all under age 8, to the hospital. Only a few minutes separated us from crossing paths with the drunk driver.
Hearing that a child was dead, a few of us went to the scene. The tiny 2008 Chevy Cobalt was severely smashed from where it left the roadway and flipped over and over and over in the single-vehicle crash. Looking into the car, Jonny Zellner, one of our DA investigators, turned ashen: “I wrapped that present last night,” he told me, pointing to a gift box in the tiny car covered in Rudolph the Reindeer paper. Little Christian was in Jonny’s wife’s Head Start class at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, and Jonny had helped her prep for the Christmas festivities the night before.
Later that day, we learned that James Carpenter, another DA investigator assigned to our Drug Enforcement Division, was one of the first responders and had attempted CPR on Christian. That little boy’s death five days before Christmas shook Wichita Falls, and it shook our office.
An investigator with the Wichita Falls Police Department took statements from Migel Matthew and Tyneshia Chatman. Before the children’s early release at 1:00 p.m. for the holiday, the two women were drinking together at Chatman’s house. Chatman’s 1-year-old baby boy and 5-year-old daughter were at home with them, while her three other kids, including Christian, were at school.
At about 10:30 a.m., Matthew ran to a liquor store and purchased a pint of Hennessy cognac and a bottle of Smirnoff Screwdrivers. Later, Matthew agreed to give Chatman a ride to Booker T. Washington school, which was less than a mile from Chatman’s house. Not only was Matthew drunk, but there were also no car seats in her vehicle. With Matthew driving, Chatman was in the passenger seat holding the baby, and the 5-year-old girl was in the backseat. Chatman left the car to pick up her other three children from the school.
Parked next to them, Mr. Larry Sankey was there to get his nephew. Sankey noticed that the driver in the car next to him, Ms. Matthew, was slumped over the console. He saw Chatman return, put her three kids in the car, and then jostle Matthew to wake her up. Sankey then saw them drive off. (Later, Mr. Sankey provided key trial testimony about what he’d seen.)
According to Matthew’s statement, her daughter went to a different school and was riding the bus to their apartment. Matthew wanted to drive across town to pick her up and add an eighth passenger to their already crowded vehicle. The crash happened at 1:27 p.m. on their way to pick up Matthew’s daughter. Miraculously, neither Matthew, Chatman, nor the other four children were seriously injured.
Police took a consent blood draw from Matthew at 4:40 p.m. and a warrant draw at 5:15. When Matthew was released from the hospital later that day, officers arrested her for intoxication manslaughter. “Why am I being arrested? I wasn’t drunk,” she declared. “I only had a few shots of Hennessy.”
Finding the appropriate charge
The day of the crash, I was considering felony murder, with DWI with child passenger as the underlying felony, as a charge, and I wanted to know the results of the blood draws. Several months later, the consent draw came back at .155 and the blood warrant draw came back at .147.
I also contacted a professional accident reconstructionist. I wanted to make sure we could prove an act or acts clearly dangerous to human life, as required by the felony murder statute. His reconstruction supported the airbag control module data that recorded the car travelling at 103 miles per hour (mph) immediately before the crash. In his expert opinion, taking the steep curve in the road at 103 mph, where the posted speed limit is 55, was clearly dangerous to human life, especially because the driver was carrying five children under the age of 8, none of whom were in car seats. Thus, we recommended a felony murder charge for Matthew to the grand jury.
Further, we did not believe that five counts of endangering a child (a state jail felony) sufficiently expressed Chatman’s (the mother’s) liability for putting her five children in a car with a clearly drunk driver and no car seats, so we recommended that the grand jury indict Chatman for felony murder as well. Chatman’s predicate felony was endangering, and for the acts clearly dangerous to human life, we alleged both placing Christian in the car with a drunk driver and not having Christian in a car seat. The grand jury indicted both Matthew and Chatman for the felony murder of Christian.
His mother pleads
In November 2021, Chatman’s attorneys offered a manslaughter plea. In considering the difficulties in having her children testify against her, we wound up negotiating 15 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to manslaughter with a deadly weapon finding. Normally, we would not plead out Chatman before trying Matthew for fear of capping our sentence on the latter. However, two things changed our mind: for one, the COVID-19 backlog, and second, an admonishment from W. Clay Abbott, TDCAA’s DWI Resource Prosecutor, who said during a presentation at the 2021 Annual Criminal & Civil Law Conference: “Take pleas—because after COVID, you don’t have time to mess around.” These two things convinced us to plead Chatman.
The punishment case gets a lot better
It was nearly two years to the day from the indictment until our trial of the driver, Migel Matthew. Usually, a passage of that kind of time helps the defense. This case was an exception.
First, there were never any serious plea negotiations. Matthew apparently believed she had a good shot at intoxication manslaughter and probation. I had offered 35 years to murder but never received a counter.
Second, we indicted Matthew at the height of the COVID lockdown in April 2020. At the time, one prosecutor was presenting only the most important grand jury cases, and the grand jury was meeting in our largest courtroom so jurors could spread out. Somehow, we failed to obtain a SCRAM ankle-monitor bond condition, which we would normally seek, and a magistrate had imposed the standard conditions of an ignition interlock and no drinking for Matthew’s original arrest.
In preparing for trial, I asked one of our investigators to go to Matthew’s apartment complex and find out where the bus would have dropped off her daughter. When he went to obtain that information, he discovered that Matthew was regularly intoxicated at the apartment. She had even stabbed a guy (in self-defense), someone she’d been drinking with, in March 2022. He also confirmed where Matthew’s daughter would have been dropped off, which established that Matthew’s motive in driving across town was to retrieve her daughter.
Though the trial was only two weeks away, I filed for her bond to be revoked for violating a condition imposed for the safety of the community. At the bond revocation hearing, we proved up five drinking violations and two violent altercations in the previous six weeks, which the investigator discovered from the apartment complex manager. Judge Meredith Kennedy revoked the defendant’s bond and remanded her into custody. In investigating the stabbing, police had taken photos of the defendant’s apartment, which showed two empty liquor bottles: one on the floor in the corner of the kitchen and the other on a kitchen cabinet.
Framing the case
For jury selection, I used a photo of a “Baby on Board” sign in the back window of a car. This was to symbolize why the charge was felony murder. I explained felony murder with DWI with a child passenger as the predicate felony, and I committed the panel that they could apply felony murder in that way. When I asked if anyone thought it was an inappropriate application of felony murder, I got no responses.
I was thankful that the defense ridiculed the application of felony murder with DWI with a child passenger and even bordered on making a jury nullification argument. I did not object because I wanted to find out who on the panel agreed with the defense. This exposed the panelists the State needed to strike, which we did.
In addition to the various investigators and first responders, some of the most riveting testimony came from Christian’s sister and two brothers who had been in the car. Even though two years had passed, they all remembered the crash vividly. Our felony prosecutor Misty King expertly handled the children’s testimony. They testified about how fast the defendant was driving and that people in the car warned her about the speed, but she ignored them. The children’s testimony visibly impacted the jury.
Because we were alleging acts clearly dangerous to human life, it was crucial for the jury to understand Matthew’s extreme level of intoxication. She had not merely had a few shots like she claimed. I hired Dr. Troy Walden with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Education Studies of the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. Dr. Walden testified that at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 and above, a driver has impaired braking time, impaired dynamic vision necessary for driving, loss of peripheral vision, loss of judgment, increased risk taking, loss of muscle control, impaired judgment, and impacted divided attention (which is essential for driving). Dr. Walden converted Matthew’s hospital serum draw about 90 minutes after the crash to a .188. Then he used our other data points to calculate a .017 elimination rate. That indicated a BAC of around .20 at the time of driving. Dr. Walden described this as “a significant level of impairment—stuporous.”
In the middle of trial, Donnie Cavinder, one of our DA investigators, found a jail call where the defendant claimed, “I know the reports say I was f-ed up. I wasn’t f-ed up. I only drank a pint of Hennessy that day. I’ve had a fifth before and not been f-ed up. That happened because I was speeding to get my child.” After hearing the jail call, I dispatched my secretary to purchase a pint of Hennessy. Dr. Walden calculated that there were approximately 10½ shots in the bottle and that drinking a pint would put the defendant well above .20—Hennessy is 80 proof, like Jack Daniels. This evidence was also key when the defendant decided to testify at punishment and claim she didn’t feel intoxicated.
The defense conceded that Matthew was intoxicated but argued that intoxication manslaughter was the appropriate charge. As the defense attorney said, “Sure, Mr. Gillespie in jury selection talks about a security guard who gets hit in the head during an aggravated robbery and dies. That’s a felony murder. This is not a felony murder. This is just intoxication manslaughter.” The court’s charge contained counts for intoxication manslaughter and DWI with child passenger as lesser-included offenses. The defense requested both, and we thought it was safer not to object to their inclusion.
During opening argument, I pulled out a red crystal vase that once belonged to my mother. “This vase was my Mom’s,” I told the jury. “It means something to me because she liked it. She passed away a few years ago. I keep it on my mantle and think of her when I look at it. It’s not particularly valuable, but it’s important to me. When I cleaned out my parents’ house in Burkburnett, I had to drive with this vase from Burkburnett to Wichita Falls. It is fragile and breakable. I was very careful with it. But at the end of the day, it’s just an object. Think about how much more breakable, how much more fragile, and how much more valuable Christian’s life was.”
Then during closing argument, I reminded jurors that they had each given me their word that they could apply the law to the facts. I said while this was a terrible case because nobody wants to think about a dead 4-year-old, it was an easy case for applying the law to the facts. The State proved Migel Matthew was driving while intoxicated with five children in the car. The judge had instructed them that DWI with a child passenger is a felony. The State proved Matthew was travelling 103 miles an hour when she took that turn. There was no question that that speed at that level of impairment with all that precious cargo were acts clearly dangerous to human life. Our reconstructionist said speed caused the crash, and the medical examiner testified that Christian died from blunt force trauma from the crash. All these facts pointed to the same thing: Matthew committed acts clearly dangerous to human life in the course of committing a felony that caused Christian’s death.
“Each of you gave me your word that you could apply felony murder in this situation. I hold you to that now—it is the law, and you are bound to apply it,” I argued. “But you should feel good about applying it. It is a good law. It is an important law. If the security guard in my hypothetical deserves protection—and he does—then how much more does a little child deserve the full protection of the law?”
It took the jury only 55 minutes to find Matthew guilty of murder.
The punishment phase
In opening statement, I told my go-to story about Lou Holtz. In the late 1970s, when Holtz was the football coach at the University of Arkansas, the Razorbacks went to the Orange Bowl. Coach Holtz had a rule that if a player broke curfew, the player did not play in the next game. While in Miami for the Orange Bowl, several of his star players stayed out too late. When word got out that they would not play in the big game, fans protested. Asked by a reporter why he would bench them, Coach Holtz responded, “They knew the rules. They chose the conduct. I didn’t bench them. They benched themselves.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said to the jury, “do not let anyone make you feel guilty for doing your job. You are not sending the defendant to prison. She testified she knew it was dangerous to drive drunk. She testified how valuable those children’s lives were. She chose her conduct, and she alone is responsible for the consequences.”
In addition to proving up all the instances the defendant was drunk in the past few months, we called the children’s principal from school, who took the kids to Walmart to buy them funeral clothes. She testified that one of the little boys fell asleep in the shopping cart, and he awoke in a panic. “Slow down! Slow down!” he was screaming while hyperventilating.
The defense called the defendant to the stand. She testified to the crushing poverty of her childhood in Saint Kitts, an island in the Caribbean. She also suffered multiple acts of sexual abuse as a child. She said she “took full responsibility” for her actions. She also admitted that she had never stopped drinking after the crash.
In preparing for cross, I did not want to come across as harsh. I wanted to focus on all the defendant’s actions that caused Christian’s death. My goal was to either force the defendant to admit her extreme indifference to the lives of all those children in her car or to show she didn’t really take full responsibility for her actions. She opted for the latter path.
On cross, she denied that she felt drunk after drinking that much: “I know what the reports said, but I felt fine to drive.” She admitted that if she had just driven the kids back to their house, less than a mile from school, Christian would likely have been safe, and she was the one who wanted to drive across town. She admitted there were no car seats in her car, but she tried to blame the children’s mother for that. She denied that she was traveling 103 miles an hour, as recorded by her car’s airbag control module, and claimed instead, “I was only going 80 to 85.” She also denied that anybody in the car had warned her about her dangerous speed, even though the children had testified she was going so fast that they were begging her to slow down.
She also claimed she had only had three shots of Hennessy. At that, I played her jail call for the jury. I pulled out a fifth of Hennessy and compared it to a smaller pint bottle. She said that what she meant in the jail call was that she had been drinking a fifth with friends before, so drinking a pint would not impair her.
“You were making a comparison from the greater (the fifth) to the lesser (a pint)?” I clarified.
“No,” she replied.
“You were saying, ‘I’ve drank a whole fifth before and not been ‘f-ed up’ so when I only had a pint, I wasn’t ‘f-ed up.’”
“No, I was only saying I had shots out of a fifth before and shots out of a pint.”
The jury got the picture. Having a fifth and a pint as visual aids was helpful.
The defense also called a psychologist who testified the defendant was bipolar, had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her childhood, and suffered from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). In crossing psychologists, I find that tying them to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is useful. I noted that the DSM gives examples of AUD in spousal abuse and child abuse, and I gave the psychologist hypotheticals of a husband abusing a wife to death and a father abusing a son to death in a drunken rage. “So, in both hypotheticals, the DSM and you would recognize that AUD can be a contributing factor in many murders?” I asked. The psychologist also admitted that the defendant’s repeated failures—to stop drinking after the crash, obtain any alcohol treatment, or take her meds for bipolar disorder—were concerning risk factors.
During closing argument, I showed a slide with the range of punishment for murder on a timeline: five years to life in prison. On the next slide, I added the word “child” in front of “murder,” and I put a hash mark on the timeline at 45 years. I recommended the jury start at 45 years for the sentence because the defendant murdered a child. I suggested they make a list of facts that would move them lower than 45, such as her sad childhood, and the facts that would move them over 45, such as her continued drinking, her disregard for the children’s safety, and the infinite value of Christian’s life. It took the jury about two hours to return a 60-year verdict.
While I was thankful that the jury recognized the priceless value of Christian’s life, no verdict could replace what Matthew had destroyed. Our office will never forget Christian or that terrible December day when, in the words of author L.M. Montgomery, “at sunset, the little soul that had come with the dawning went away, leaving heartbreak behind it.”
 Tex. Penal Code §19.02(b)(3).