Jennifer Hill said she was shocked when a judge sentenced a Summerville man who confessed to killing both her daughter and a friend to a comparatively-low 55 years in prison last month.
Caleb Matlock was found guilty of murdering 18-year-old Dana Woods and her friend 22-year-old June Guerry in August 2012. Prosecutors said Matlock and another man had gotten a ride with the pair near Moncks Corner before killing both women and stealing Woods’ car. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, armed robbery, and third-degree arson. The other man, Arthur Ray Chavis, has not yet had his case go to trial.
Circuit Judge Brooks Goldsmith sentenced Matlock to 55 years in prison — or, as Hill notes, roughly 27 years for each victim. Matlock had no previous convictions (although he had a previous charge of failure to stop for blue lights) and apologized in court before his sentence was handed down.
“I felt like I got hit in the stomach,” Hill told South Carolina Radio Network. “The judge might as well have walked up to me and punched me and said, ‘You know what, (Dana) wasn’t worth anything.”
Angry about what she considers a light sentence, Hill said she began researching what she could do to push for a change in the state’s mandatory minimum laws. In South Carolina, a murder conviction requires at least 30 total years in prison, but gives a judge discretion above that.
Using the petition website Change.Org, Hill created a site “Justice for Dana and June.” She began seeking signatures for a petition to Gov. Nikki Haley, members of Congress, and state legislators asking them to toughen the minimum punishments for murder convictions. The petition asks that the sentence be increased to at least 50 years and apply for each victim, rather than cumulative.
“I just think that no other mother should have to go through this,” Hill said. “I mean, he didn’t even get the (30-year) minimum sentence for each murder that we already have on record.”
The mother hopes to gather at least 5,000 signatures before she submits the petition. As of Monday afternoon, there were more than 1,400 names expressing support.
But Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is not sure legislators will increase the punishment. He noted that Matlock’s six guilty pleas already gave Judge Goldsmith the ability to sentence the man to significantly more time (190 years, if served consecutively).
“I don’t know that we need to put a 50-year minimum in place,” Martin told South Carolina Radio Network. “The judge could’ve easily sentenced him to life without parole.”
But Hill is determined to try.
“I would like everybody to go read the petition,” she said. “Even if you don’t agree with it, at least read it.”
To see the petition, click here.