Editor’s Note: Some readers will find details in this article disturbing.
After less than an hour of deliberation on Friday, a Columbia County jury imposed a life sentence on Matthew Ryan Elliott. Elliott was convicted 20 years ago – when he was 16 – of murdering Brittni Pater, 15.
“Justice has been served with this verdict,” said Jeff Rogers, prosecuting attorney for the 13th Judicial District. “There is no closure and no closure for the Pater family, but maybe they can rest easier knowing justice has been served.”
See the story collection at left for more trial coverage this week, and other past articles about this case.
Friday was the fourth day of a re-sentencing trial that retold the gruesome facts about Elliott bludgeoning Brittni multiple times with an aluminum bar at an oil well site in the Village community early Saturday, February 5, 2000. Elliott then ran over her body with a car. She was pregnant with his child.
Brittni’s mother, Vinita Pater, said after the trial Friday that she was thankful for the jury’s determination.
“I am so thankful that the jury saw what he took from us and the horrible person he became at such a young age,” Pater said. “He threw his family’s problems out for everyone to see for a chance to get out. He doesn’t deserve to be out.”
Elliott was found guilty of capital murder in 2000. He was sentenced to life without parole, but at the time he was convicted was only 16.
The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in 2012 on Arkansas and Alabama murder cases that were combined for its review, held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”
The practical impact of Friday’s sentence is that Elliott will spend the rest of his life in prison. However, unlike his previous sentence of life without parole, it is possible that a future Arkansas governor could commute Elliott’s sentence to the lesser of the two punishments the jury had available to it this week – a term of between 10-40 years in prison. A commutation could give Elliott a path for an eventual parole.
Elliott took the witness stand on his own behalf at the start of Friday’s court session. He called the crime “senseless,” and said looking back he knows that he and Brittni needed to get an adult involved.
“If I could do anything I would go back and hug those kids and tell them they were safe and that it would all be alright,” Elliott said.
Elliott said he was in love with Brittni and that she was his friend and not only his on-again-off-again girlfriend.
He recalled one weekend when he took her fishing and said he remembers wanting to impress her with a big catch even though she was a “girly girl.” But when he caught a large catfish and tried to put it in smaller ice chest, Brittni expressed sympathy for the fish and made Elliott feel like he should release it.
“I put it back in the water and when it finally took off I remember the smile on her face,” Elliott said, said his voice choking up. “She was the kind of girl who made you really glad to throw you fish back.”
Elliott said he surrendered to the ministry in the summer of 1999 and became involved in teaching Sunday school and performed some sermons for his church. He said he and Brittni were both religious which made them feel guilty about having sex one time around Christmas 1999.
When Brittni became pregnant, Elliott said he began feeling rejected by her because she wanted to remain with her boyfriend she already had and he said he began to see her as his enemy.
“She told me if I didn’t help get her an abortion, she would say I raped her,” Elliott said.
At that point, Elliott said he began putting together a plan of how he would kill Brittni and thought of her as a problem he needed to solve. He said he suffered with uncontrollable looping thoughts about how he had to do something and said he felt panicked about needing to find a solution to a situation for which he could find no other way out.
He said he decided to murder her but didn’t think about what that really would mean.
“I did not understand the finality of death when I was 16,” Elliott said.
He said he did not think about how violent it would be to kill until he hit Brittni in the head near a deer camp in Village.
“As I was striking Brittni, she cried out my name, she said, ‘please,’” Elliott said. “And I don’t want to say anything about if I was in a good minds state at all but this changed something. It was like I saw her again. She wasn’t just a problem so me. She was Brittini,” he said, wiping his tears.
Elliott said he wished he would have thought about his unborn child and what would happen to the child when he killed its mother.
“I never thought about the unborn child and does he have fingers and toes yet,” Elliott said. “I never thought about, ‘Here is my parents’ grandchild or here is the Pater’s grandchild.’ I never thought about any of that.”
Elliott’s defense team packed the Columbia County Justice and Detention Center on Thursday with various employees at the Arkansas Department of Corrections, along with a friend, a preacher and his own mother to testify on his behalf.
They spoke about the impact he makes on the lives of all of those he is around at the prison whether by participating in the prison chapel or tutoring inmates with homework inside the prison’s schools.
Little Rock defense attorney Annie Depper speculated perhaps Elliott choses to work so hard at the ADC for not only his own fulfillment but also for a higher purpose.
“Maybe in some ways he is trying to right this terrible wrong,” she said.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Phillips told jurors in his closing statement the ADC is a good home for Elliott.
“Evidently things are going good at the ADC and he needs to stay at the ADC,” Phillips said in his closing statement. “When he has been out in the free world, it hasn’t gone that well.”
During her closing statement Depper reiterated what was said in the opening statement about no one is the sum of the worst thing they have ever done and that just because someone had murdered someone it didn’t only make them a murderer.
“The harshest punishments in life should be saved for the worse crimes and the worst people,” Depper said. “You can give him between 10 and 40 or you can give him life. We are not asking for 10, that would not be enough. We are not asking for 20, that’s not enough. We are not asking for 30. We are asking for you to sentence Matthew Elliott to 40 years.”
Earlier in his testimony, Elliott had alluded to wanting to help people through a church setting if he got out of prison.
“I believe there is nothing more valuable than human life and I just want people to be able to be who they want to be,” Elliott said.
Elliott said he wanted to help save people who feel they have done something so horrible and have no idea where to turn. He said he had already talked about this with childhood friend, Pastor Aaron Middleton, who serves at Antioch West Baptist Church in Magnolia.
Elliott’s legal team has a right to appeal Friday’s decision in court in 30 days.
Phillips said in his closing statements that he hoped jurors noticed the references to “me,” in Elliott’s testimony. He also said he hoped they carried their common sense into the jury room and didn’t hesitate to use it to keep Elliott behind bars.
“Me, me, me, there was a lot of that in his testimony,” Phillips said.
“Narcissism Is not something that is limited to juveniles. I suspect you will see it in a lot more in other criminal cases.”
“My fear throughout the trial has been the passage of 20 years since February 5, 2000 but 20 years should not soften the blow,” Phillips said.
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