A jury verdict that a Raleigh couple are not guilty of knowingly aiding and abetting underage drinking has left two parents still distraught at the loss of their son and questions unanswered about the events at a wedding party that ended in the teenager’s death.
Jonathon “JT” Taylor, who attended the party at the home of Charles and Kimberley Matthews in June 2014, later died after his car left the road going 89 miles per hour and hit a tree. Taylor, who was 18, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.20, 21/2 times the legal limit for an adult driver.
The Matthewses were accused of knowingly aiding and abetting the underage drinking of four teenagers: Taylor, two teenage girls and their son Thomas, all classmates at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh. Witnesses testified to seeing Taylor and three other teens drinking wine at the wedding party. They had also consumed a fifth of Jack Daniel’s whiskey in a neighbor’s yard.
“There’s nothing the court can do here to bring JT back to this Earth, to his parents,” Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith said after the verdict was read. “The loss of their son is still there. It’s real, it’s permanent.”
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After reading the jury’s decision of not guilty on all charges, the judge sentenced Thomas Matthews, now 19, and attending Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., to 18 months of unsupervised probation and the loss of his driver’s license for a year. Thomas Matthews pleaded guilty on Monday to buying the whiskey from an ABC clerk, who did not ask for his ID.
Before announcing the sentence, Smith asked Thomas Matthews questions about what led Taylor to leave the Matthewses wedding party and drive that night.
“Do you remember the last time you talked to him?” Smith asked.
He shook his head.
“Do you remember the last time you saw him?”
“Not with confidence,” Thomas Matthews responded as he stood before Smith.
“The question is still there,” the judge said. “His father was on the way, and he made the decision to leave.”
Thomas Matthews’ attorney, Roger Smith Jr., told the judge his client had no idea why Taylor chose to get behind the wheel.
With a sigh, the judge sentenced the younger Matthews.
A few minutes earlier, the jury found his parents, Charles Matthews, a 59-year-old Raleigh neurologist, and Kimberley Matthews, 52, not guilty after about two hours of deliberation and following a trial that lasted less than a week.
During closing arguments, the Matthewses’ attorney, Hart Miles, called the investigation and charges against the couple “an emotional response to a tragedy.” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said it was an opportunity for the community to decide who is responsible in cases of underage drinking.
“It was our belief that there was sufficient evidence in this case,” Freeman said after the verdict. “The issue of underage drinking is of significant enough importance that it was appropriate for the community to decide whether these parents had a responsibility.”
Miles, who spoke on behalf of the Matthewses after the trial, said the couple “takes no joy in the verdict.”
“The Matthewses have been publicly accused and ridiculed, and now the jury has told them they’re not guilty,” Miles said. “Hopefully that will bring some measure of closure to this chapter.”
Greg and Carrie Taylor, Jonathon Taylor’s parents, filed a lawsuit against the Matthewses in early July. Landon White, an attorney for the Taylors, released a statement Friday on their behalf.
“Despite the outcome, this case should create awareness that it is not okay to provide alcohol to underage persons, much less for adults and parents to provide alcohol to underage persons,” the statement said. “If one life can be saved from awareness of this issue, the loss of JT will not be in vain.”
This week’s trial was highlighted by emotional testimony from the Taylors. The prosecution showed text messages between the parents and their son, who asked them to come pick up him up from the party at 10:16 p.m. Later that night, the couple came upon the wreck that killed their son.
“John was my only son, my only child,” Greg Taylor, a state trooper, said on the witness stand.
During closing arguments, Jason Waller, an assistant district attorney, argued that it defies common sense to suggest the Matthewses, who declined to testify, were unaware the teenagers were drinking at the party.
“The buck stopped with them,” Waller said of the Matthewses. “It was their house; it was their wedding; it was their alcohol.”
After Friday’s verdict, Miles said the events of that night would have been different if the Matthewses had known Jonathon Taylor intended to drive.
“If they had any idea he was going to drive, of course they would have intervened,” Miles said. “But all the evidence was that he had no intention of doing that.”
Wildeman: 919-829-4845, @mkwildeman