She has the pedigree -- life plus 30

March 24, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Clara Darlene Mathews writes a great letter of introduction from prison.

She name-drops Orville and Wilbur Wright, from whom she says she's descended. She mentions former Orioles and Colts, and the inventor of Bufferin, and the late Dr. Benjamin Spock, all of whom she claims as former neighbors. She's got background, she's got pedigree! Also, she mentions, she's doing life for trying to kill her husband and stepson.

"I don't belong here," Mathews, 54, declared the other night. She glanced at her surroundings in the crowded visiting room at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, where dozens of inmates attempted simultaneous conversation with loved ones in a din resembling thunder in a phone booth.

She looked small and shaky and overmatched. Last week was three years since her arrival here, three years since she was given concurrent life terms, plus 30 years, by Baltimore County Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr.

"An unspeakably horrible act," a Baltimore County prosecutor called her crime. Also, unredeemably botched from the moment of conception, when Mathews decided to erase her husband, retired businessman Henry Burke Mathews of Ruxton, and his son William, a chemist, by hiring a 19-year-old biker at a Burger King parking lot.

The biker said he wanted $5,000, including $2,500 up front. No problem, said Mathews. But the kid immediately used the $2,500 for a swell weekend in Ocean City with some pals, whereupon he had a timely change of conscience and went to the cops with the story.

State police assigned an undercover guy, Trooper George Forsythe, to accompany the biker and pose as a professional hit man. Forsythe wore a body wire when he met with Mathews. He described her as "friendly, excited, happy" when they discussed the murder plans. On his hidden tape recorder, he picked up their conversation.

"What is it exactly you want me to do?" Forsythe asks.

"I want him gone," says Mathews.

"What do you mean?"

"I want him gone."

"Do you want him beat up real bad or something along those lines?"

"No, I want him gone."

"Like, killed?"

"Yeah."

Only, Forsythe explained in court, "She didn't want a mess in the house, she didn't want blood in the house. She didn't want a mess in there while I was committing this murder. And she said, 'If the son is there, he shouldn't be a problem, go ahead and take care of him, too.'"

Mathews handed Forsythe a house key and waited nearby. Forsythe was to kill her husband and bring back his wallet as a sign that the job had been done. Instead, Forsythe went to the house and told a staggered Henry Burke Mathews what he'd been hired to do. Then, wallet in hand, he returned to the expectant "widow." When Mathews took the wallet and handed Forsythe payment, she was quickly surrounded by police.

Neither of Clara Darlene Mathews' attorneys - Richard Karceski, who handled her defense, nor Roland Walker, who's hoping to win reduction of sentence - particularly disputes the murder-for-hire facts. But they're upset about the sentence.

Mathews, on the other hand, still seems to be grappling with the magnitude of her act.

Asked how she could cross the line between anger and attempted murder, she says, "I had a migraine that day, and ... "

Asked about telling Forsythe not to get the house too bloody during the murder, she says, "Yes, that apparently was said. Apparently, it was. I remember some of the things, but not all of the things."

Asked about telling Forsythe to kill her stepson, she says, "If it's in the transcript, then they put it there."

She claims she was physically abused by her husband - though he denied it in court, and evidence was flimsy enough that a jury sloughed it off. Also, there was testimony that her husband, a widower, was financially generous with Mathews.

She is a woman who claims a sliver of Wright Brothers history, a woman whose neighbors were famous people, and now she awakens each day and finds herself in hell. Thus, she wishes to change the facts of her life.

Did she commit the crime? Yes, she admits, but the "hit man" never had any intention to carry it out, so what's the problem? - as though she knew this when she hired him.

But if she's still dancing around certain facts, her lawyers raise interesting issues on sentencing. Life-plus-30 is unusually harsh for such a case, they say.

"Generally," says Karceski, "unsuccessful murder-for-hire gets single-digit years, usually no more than eight years. I know of similar cases where people have served six months, 18 months.

"My sense of this is that Judge Smith was offended by her. She claimed spousal abuse, and he didn't believe a word of it, and he thought her claim was an injustice to women who do have a legitimate claim of abuse."

With her life-plus-30 term, Mathews faces the distinct possibility of never being released.

In the week the jury deliberates the fate of Ruthann Aron on charges she attempted to have her husband killed, Clara Darlene Mathews watches the developments, and compares them to her own, and wonders how she botched her life so badly.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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