The story of Matthew Charles, a Nashville man sent back to prison after being released for more than two years, has become something of a cause celeb, bringing pleas for his clemency all the way to the Oval Office.
In recent weeks media outlets from Fox News to the BBC have picked up on it and attached Charles’ case to others being presented to the president for pardons.
Nearly everyone has cited the reporting by WPLN’s Julieta Martinelli for the spotlight she has shown on this case. WPLN host Jason Moon Wilkins sat down with her in the studio.
You've been reporting on Matthew Charles for a while, but people really started paying attention a few weeks ago. How did that happen and when did you know the story had exploded?
I actually started reporting on Matthew Charles back in December. We began profiling his case as he battled through the legal system and fought for his freedom. But it was my final story, where I talked about his last weeks before turning himself back into prison, that went viral. Honestly it was really surprising. Suddenly, I started getting a lot retweets and mentions — my notifications went crazy. But I think I really realized how popular it was when someone sent me a screenshot of Kim Kardashian tweeting my story.
One thing I found surprising was how many conservative voices jumped on this to really push the idea of a pardon. Obviously the story connected with people on a human level. But why do you think they spoke out about this case?
I think there is a lot of elements at play here. To start, there’s been a lot more conversation than usual about some of the issues in our criminal justice system. The First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill heavily supported by conservatives, has been discussed a lot recently on national television. And so outlets like Fox News really took on this story, and in some ways they focused on some of the aspects that I think really connected with their viewers.
Matthew Charles has been outspoken about the religious conversion that he had in prison. And so, one of the things that Fox has highlighted is how he was able to find religion behind bars and how that affected his rehabilitation. There's also the fact that Kim Kardashian had also just announced that she was going to the White House to talk to President Trump about criminal justice reform. That made national headlines across the board, in both liberal and conservative publications, because it's so surprising to hear that the president is asking a reality TV star for advice on criminal justice reform. But that is what's happening.
When it comes to pardons we've seen the president pardon a woman from Memphis recently. Do you have any indication as to whether Kim Kardashian, who was essential in that case, or anyone else, is still really pushing for Charles to be pardoned?
“Kim Kardashian has not publicly spoken out about Charles again since her tweet. But we know from other sources that Charles’ name has definitely made it to the White House.
And there have been other developments in this case. It's continued to be shared by a number of people, from Chelsea Clinton to Matt Walsh, and has continued to get air time as conservative and liberal figures alike continue to ask the President to grant him clemency.
And then there’s Shon Hopwood, a former jailhouse lawyer and now associate professor of law at Georgetown. Hopwood heard about Charles’ case and offered to represent him in a clemency petition pro bono. I think that brought another layer of visibility to the case. Hopwood is really one of the examples that people point to when they talk about what happens when people rehabilitate in prison and are given an opportunity to start over when they get out. Plus, Hopwood has publicly advocated for the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill championed by Jared Kushner, Trump's son in law. And he's been previously invited to the White House to talk reform.”
Have you had a chance to speak to Mr. Charles since all of this happened?
“I went down to Kentucky a couple of weeks ago, where he's currently being held at a local jail waiting to be transferred to South Carolina. I was allowed to see him for only 15 minutes through a glass panel but we had an opportunity to catch up and get a quick update of how he was feeling. And then I actually spoke to him this Saturday. Here’s a bit of sound from that conversation:
‘It’s wonderful to hear that so many people have heard my story, or read about my story, and their hearts have been moved with mercy and compassion. My heart is, I mean, it’s just growing on a daily basis, with every person who speaks about my case or shares my story.’
Another thing that I want to point out is that there's been a lot of conversations by people within the criminal justice world, policymakers and advocates, who are concerned about the way that Trump is handling these pardons.
And so while it is a very positive thing for many to see people like Alice Marie Johnson be granted clemency, there's also a lot of concern because there are more than 10,000 applications currently pending with the Office of Pardons. And they've been pending for years.
Trump has announced that he’s asked celebrities and NFL players to submit names of people that they think deserve pardons, but he's going around the Office and doing this on his own.
And so there is concern that encouraging his recent pardon initiatives, which may lead to the release of some people, will also result in thousands of others, who don’t have the same visibility in the media, to be forgotten.”