Matt was transported to Ashland County Jail, and was appointed a local lawyer to represent him, Damian Vercillo. Matt’s bond was again set at $450,000 cash only. No 10%. No property. This was to ensure Matt had no way to get out and investigate the crime. Matt knew nothing about the victim nor crime. Through his lawyer, the Prosecutor offered a plea bargain, to reduce the charge from aggravated murder, to the lesser included offense of felonious assault with a sentence of 3-15 years with a guaranteed parole in writing in 2 years. Matt refused, maintaining his innocence.
Vercillo filed demands for Discovery, which the Court granted, ordering the Prosecutor to turn over a list of ALL witnesses, evidence, scientific and other reports related to the case, and anything that could be construed as exculpatory evidence. Matt had refused to waive his speedy trial rights, needing to get this whole mess straightened out, so he could return to his life, so the initial trial date was set for January 2, 1991. The eventual trial date started on January 15, 1991 - the same day as the Gulf War started. Notably, the Prosecutor was still dribbling in discovery responses after that date, with material he had had since 1986.
At trial, the Prosecutor presented Judy Taylor's testimony, which now included a claim that she had been in the Kallethea Bar on the afternoon of December 30, 1985 and she had seen Johnson with Matt. The Prosecutor also presented the testimony of Fred and Lisa Kyles, who were friends of Vic Taylor and ex-friends of Matt; as Matt had been responsible for Fred getting caught dealing cocaine, and being handed a 10 year prison term. Therefore, Fred testified in an Indiana jail uniform about how Matt had also told him "he did it". Lisa's testimony was similar but conflicted with Fred's.
The Prosecutor also presented the testimony of Dan Miller (he was a school friend of the Kyles', Vic Taylor and Joe Griffith) who was a local small-time drug dealer, under Indictment for obstruction of justice, and under threat of prosecution if he refused to co-operate. Miller testified, that on an unknown date, he had been driving Matt’s orange pick-up truck to see what might be wrong with it, as he was an auto mechanic, and they had gone to the Kallethea Bar. He claimed that Matt had gone in and come out with an unknown female, (who was never identified as Johnson), that he had driven to Mifflin, to an area several miles away from where the murder actually took place, and that Matt had got out with the unknown female, and come back without her after a while, with "his knife in his hand and blood on his thumb". Notably, Miller and Matt had had a serious falling out in 1987, just before Matt moved to Indiana, and Miller had threatened Matt.
The Coroner later testified that Johnson had suffered bruises to her left eye, the left side of her face and the left corner of her mouth, and to her left ribs and had suffered approximately seven fairly shallow slashes to her neck, one of which cut the artery and she bled to death.
An independent Forensic Pathologist noted that all of the injuries inflicted upon Johnson were clearly and obviously inflicted with the right hand (or fist), and that the knife wounds were clearly made from behind, from left to right and slightly upwards, which establishes to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the perpetrator was right handed. It is undisputed that Matt is left handed.
The final witness for the Prosecution was LaTreva Perdue, who was never interviewed by the Defense prior to trial. Perdue testified for hours, describing the two men, their clothes, shoes, every step of the incident and all she could remember. Specifically, she testified that the taller man had a goatee several inches long, and had grease under his fingernails. She confirmed the description of the truck bed and the floor shifter. When asked if she remembered and could identify the tall man, she responded that she could. When asked to "look around the courtroom, I mean really look, and tell us if the tall man is in the courtroom", she responded "No." Obviously taken by surprise, the Prosecutor, with the Judge's permission, had Perdue actually leave the witness stand and walk over to the Defense table, and look closely at Matt.
She returned to the stand and reiterated that Matt was not the man. The Prosecutor repeatedly asked her "Are you sure?" and "How sure are you?" Defense counsel's objections were sustained. Then the Judge finally told him he could "get at it on redirect". Defense counsel then said "no questions", ostensibly to prevent the Prosecutor from these inquiries.
To this date, nobody from the Defense has ever interviewed LaTreva Perdue about what she knew about the murder of Johnson. Her testimony was stage-managed by the Prosecutor, and it was later discovered that she had been promised that an old probation violation would "go away" in exchange for her testimony in this case. However, she was sent to prison for nine months, when she refused to lie and identify Matt as the killer.
The lead Detective specifically testified that there were no identifiable fingerprints found at the scene.
Defense counsel had hired a Private Detective, Bill Spognardi, a former Richland County (Mansfield) Sheriff's Deputy who, it was revealed at trial, had been fired from the Police for falsification. Spognardi's partner in his private detective agency was later revealed to have been the then-former Mansfield Police Detective Robert Lemon.
When interviewing Matt’s former girlfriend Cheryl Workman, Rick Harris was found and brought to trial, to testify about the confrontation they had been in on December 30, 1985. Workman testified about Matt’s black eye resulting from the confrontation and confirmed the date. The cashier at the gas station, who knew Matt well, and who was present during the confrontation and offered to call the police, was not interviewed by the Defense, nor called to trial to confirm the alibi.
Butch Perkins testified that he had bought Matt’s truck and had picked it up "the same day we went to the courthouse". The Richland County Title Clerk testified that the signature on the title was hers and was genuine, and could only have been affixed on August 1, 1985. Perkins was a bit intellectually slow, and was badgered by the Prosecutor into confusing testimony that "maybe he didn't get it when he thought" and that this was because the prosecutor "had told him so" in the hallway just prior to his testimony.
Marshall Smith (AKA Kennon), Gurcia Johnson's brother, testified for Matt at trial clearly stating that Judy Taylor had lied, that he had never given her Matt’s name, and that he had never heard of Matt Mason until he was mentioned by Taylor. Kennon had been in jail and had been released prior to his testimony but was kept in jail and was forced to testify in an orange jumpsuit jail uniform to adversely affect his credibly with the jury.
Notably, Defense counsel barely mentioned LaTreva Perdue's refusal to identify Matt during his closing arguments, instead mainly stating "reasonable doubt...".
At the end of the trial, the jury deliberated for some hours. At 5pm were inexplicably sequestered at a local motel, an unusual move for a run-of-the-mill murder trial without a lot of publicity, and no hint of any threats to jurors or potential tampering. The heat was turned off at the motel on January 30, 1991 and upon deliberating for a full day, the jury, not wanting to return to the cold motel, decided to change their votes, and found Matt guilty because the Prosecutor had told them during his closing argument, that if they made a mistake "the Appeals Court will straighten it out on Appeal".
Matt was sentenced to “the rest of his natural life in prison” by the Judge, despite the fact that there was no such sentence in Ohio law. The proper statutory sentence was “life with parole eligibility after serving 20 years”.
As Nancy Mason was leaving the courtroom after sentencing, she was approached by a woman who stated "You know, he's innocent, he didn't kill Gurcia Mae; the police did it, everyone knows that". The woman was Ida Kennon, Marshall Kennon's wife (Gurcia Johnson’s sister-in-law).
Photograph Published: Mansfield New Journal. January 29, 1991.
Photographer: Jim Bikar.
Mathew E. Mason and his Attorney stand while jury leaves for a lunch break Monday in Mason's murder trial.
With so much evidence withheld by the Prosecution. It was later brought to light that fingerprint evidence did exist, but the State destroyed this before Matt could get his fingerprints tested against them.