Victim: Brittni Pater, 15
Murderers: Matthew Elliott, 16, & William Davis, 17
Crime date: February 5, 2000
On a winter day in 2000, 15-year-old Brittni was beaten to death with a metal pipe by her 16-year-old boyfriend Matthew Elliot. Elliot then ran over the injured girl with his car.
According to Elliot’s accomplice William Davis, Elliot said that Brittni had told him she was pregnant and that if he did not pay for an abortion, she would claim he raped her. Davis and Elliot then made preparations for her murder, digging a grave to bury her body in and obtaining a metal pipe from Davis’s home. According to Davis, he did not believe Elliot would go through with the crime.
On the day of the murder, Elliot tricked Brittni into leaving with him in his car by promising that he was taking her to get an abortion. Instead, he took Brittni to an oil well site where he made up a story about needing to take off his license plate. When she got out to help Elliot beat her severely, striking her 17 times with the pipe from Davis’s house and telling her “you need to die.” Brittni pleaded for her life and managed to survive the terrifying ordeal. Elliot then ran over her head with his car, killing her. The cause of death was found to be a brain hemorrhage.
Davis was originally sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for his part in the crime, though he was later re-sentenced to 40 years in prison and was released in 2018. Elliot was also sentenced to LWOP and was later re-sentenced to life in prison, which Brittni’s mother was thankful for. “I am so thankful that the jury saw what he took from us and the horrible person he became at such a young age. He threw his family’s problems out for everyone to see for a chance to get out. He doesn’t deserve to be out.”
MAGNOLIA (Arkansas) (AP) — On the shelf above her computer, in the bedroom she left just before her death, Brittni Pater left a Bible open to Psalm 25.
The chapter asks God not to remember the rebellious ways of youth, but rather to show mercy and kindness, the Rev. Brad Justice told hundreds gathered Wednesday for the 15-year-old’s funeral.
“The worst this world can do is kill us, but God will take care of us,” Justice said.
The sanctuary at Immanuel Baptist Church was filled with several hundred people, many of them teen-agers, and in an adjoining fellowship hall, another hundred-plus mourners watched Brittni’s funeral on two large-screen television sets.
Some teen-agers passed facial tissues among themselves to wipe away tears, while others brushed back tears with their hands, mourning the death of the girl whose body was found Saturday near a shallow grave that authorities say was dug before she was killed.
Brittni, who was pregnant, was bludgeoned to death, authorities say, after leaving a note to her parents saying something had happened and she had to take care of it. She then snuck out of the house, never to return, Columbia County Sheriff Wayne Tompkins said.
Her body was found a short while after she was picked up by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Tompkins said. Two fellow students at Magnolia High School have been charged with capital murder in connection with her death.
Two teenaged boys, Matthew Ryan Elliott, 16, and William Davis, 17, plotted for at least three weeks to kill 15-year old Brittni Pater, who was 12 weeks pregnant. They dug a grave for her on February 4, 2000 and picked up some large sheets of plastic from the Kroger grocery store where Davis worked.
They bludgeoned her repeatedly with a long, heavy metal bar wrapped with heavy tape around one end, as though the person who wielded it wanted to make sure he was able to get a good grip, investigators said. Then they ran her down with their car and dumped her battered body in an old gravel pit.
Elliott immediately bragged to his friends about how he had killed Brittni.
Several students have told investigators that they heard Matthew discussing plans to kill Brittni, the sheriff said. And authorities believe that Brittni knew she was going to die. At some point before her death, Matthew told Brittni they weren’t headed to an abortion clinic, the county sheriff said. “We think he told her he was going to kill her.”
Elliott and Davis were both charged with capital murder after giving statements in which Brittni’s pregnancy was cited as the reason she was killed. On November 2, 2000, a Columbia County jury found Davis guilty of capital murder for his part in the fatal beating.
References: Cathy Frye. “Girl, 15, Left Note Before Death.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 9, 2000; “Arkansas Teen Killed Because She Was Pregnant.” Steven Ertelt’s Pro-Life Infonet at http://www.prolifeinfo.org/infonet.html, February 10, 2000; Chuck Plunkett. “Jury Decides Help Given to Kill Girl Was Murder.” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 4, 2000.
William Davis will become eligible for parole in the year 2020, 20 years after his conviction of capital murder in the death of Magnolia teenager Brittni Pater.
Davis, 34, was resentenced Monday to 40 years’ imprisonment for his part in Pater’s death at an oil well site north of the Village community in February 2000.
Davis had been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole when he was 17 years old. Under an agreement reached with the state, he will become parole eligible after serving 50 percent of his sentence – a date that arrives in 2020.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants in capital murder cases from Arkansas and Alabama were cruel and unusual punishments, violating the defendants’ rights under the Eighth Amendment. In 2016, another court ruling made the decision retroactive, meaning that it applied to all defendants who were age 18 or younger when they committed their crimes.
Circuit Court Judge David Talley told Davis that he must truthfully testify in any future legal proceedings against his co-defendant, Matthew Ryan Elliott.
In an unusual twist to the proceedings, Brittni Pater’s mother, Vinita Pater, met privately with Davis in the jury room at the Columbia County Justice and Detention Facility following the resentencing.
David Butler, prosecuting attorney for the 13th Judicial District, was in the room and said that Mrs. Pater forgave Davis for her daughter’s death.
“There were a pile of tears shed,” Butler said. They hugged, and both Mrs. Pater and Davis were able to have a degree of closure in the moment, he said.
Elliott was 16 when he beat Pater, 15 — his girlfriend — with a metal bar and then ran over her body with his car.
Elliott is also expected to have a resentencing hearing due to the same age-related rules affecting Davis’ case.
Davis was charged with capital murder in the Pater homicide. The day before Elliott killed Pater, Davis helped Elliott dig a grave near the Davis home in which he intended to bury Pater. Davis provided Elliott with bubble wrap for potential disposal of the body. The metal bar with which Elliott beat Pater came from the Davis home.
Davis told a 2011 court hearing in the case that he had no direct role in Pater’s murder, but that he did discuss with Elliott his plan to kill his girlfriend. He said Elliott’s motive was that Pater had told him that she was pregnant, and that if he did not pay for an abortion, Pater would claim that he raped her.
Davis also intended to provide Elliott with an alibi for the evening of the homicide. The murder plot unraveled when Davis’ brother-in-law unexpectedly joined a campout Davis and Elliott had on the evening of the murder. Elliott slipped away from the campout and drove to the Pater home, where he picked up his girlfriend. Elliott took Pater to the oil well site near the campout location, and killed her.
Elliott confessed the crime to Davis and his brother-in-law, who called law enforcement after finding the body.
Davis opted for a jury trial and was found guilty. He received life-without-parole, which was the only sentencing option available aside from the death penalty.
Guilt was not an issue during Monday’s resentencing. If Davis had not agreed to the 40-year term, a formal resentencing hearing would have been set. At that hearing, both the state and the defense would have presented evidence and witnesses to support new sentences, ranging from no less than 10 years and no more than 40 years in prison, or life in prison.
Jurors on Tuesday heard a retelling of the facts in one of Columbia County’s most gruesome murder cases.
A jury was seated and opening statements presented at the Columbia County Justice and Detention Facility in the case of Matthew Ryan Elliott. Elliott was 16 when he was convicted of capital murder in the February 2000 death of his girlfriend, Brittni Pater, 15. He received a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Elliott’s guilt is not at issue. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2012 ruling 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.”
In Elliott’s case, this means jurors will consider a sentence of between 10 and 40 years in prison, or a sentence of life.
What this means exactly for Elliott’s fate is unclear, said Jeff Rogers of El Dorado, prosecuting attorney for the 13th Judicial District.
In either situation, Elliott could be free from prison in a relatively short period of time given the fact that he’s already served 20 years. A co-defendant who was also convicted of capital murder in the case, William Edward Davis, 17 at the time of the murder, was released in 2018.
Elliott bludgeoned Pater multiple times with an aluminum bar at an oil well site in the Village community on February 5, 2000. Elliott then ran over her body with a car.
“This is not about being young and dumb and that he didn’t know better,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Phillips told the jury on Monday. “Do not let the 20 years dull what happened. Do not let it.”
“This is all new territory and they didn’t give us a lot of definite guidelines other than between 10 and 40 years, and life,” Rogers said.
Phillips said Elliott planned the murder of his girlfriend for more than a month and had other options such as telling his parents, yet decided the best way to handle his girlfriend’s news of being pregnant was to kill her.
“This was a hard-wired issue. This was not a teenager plan, this was too involved. Look at the planning,” Phillips said.
Phillips said on the night of the murder, Elliott coaxed Pater out by telling her he was taking her to get an abortion. He said she brought a pillow and a blanket for the ride with someone she trusted. When they reached the oil well site in Village, Elliott made up a story about needing to take his license plate off to get out of the car and she got out to help him.
“He grabs that oil field pipe and with the first blow that hits her she yells his name. Mr. Elliott hits her at least 16 more times while she is yelling his name. He makes this statement, ‘You need to die.’”
However, the blows to the head did not kill her and Elliott heard Pater making a gurgling sound as he walked back to his car, Phillips said.
“He gets in the car and runs over her head,” Phillips said.
Columbia County Sheriff Captain Mike McWilliams testified to the brutality of what he saw when he arrived on scene off Arkansas 98.
“She looked like she had been run over. I looked at what was remaining of her eyes, took her pulse and called the Sheriff’s Office and the ambulance,” McWilliams said.
McWilliams testified that Elliott was compliant with his instructions to put his hands over his head when he came to arrest him.
“He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you say,’” McWilliams said.
The planning of the murder also included Elliott’s enlistment of his friend, William Edward Davis, to help dig a grave off a logging road before the killing. The grave, the murder scene and Davis’ home were in close proximity.
Davis also provided Elliott with bubble wrap that Elliott intended to use for the disposal of Pater’s body. An aluminum bar used as the murder weapon also came from the Davis family home.
Davis was found guilty for acting as Elliott’s accomplice.
Cleve Barfield, a retired major for the Arkansas State Police, said Elliott’s parents were with him when he was told his legal rights before questioning.
Phillips asked Barfield to describe Elliott’s mood when he was being interviewed about the crime.
“He was acting normally, not out of the ordinary,” he said.
Blake Hendrix, Elliott’s attorney, presented jurors with evidence about the teenage brain and how it is not as evolved as an adult’s brain. Hendrix said the brain’s amygdala, located deep in the temporal lobe, is responsible for fight-or-flight response that causes people to respond to threat. While this part of the brain is animal like and is in place at a young age, well thought out reasoning in the prefrontal cortex doesn’t take place in men until they are almost 30, he said.
“There are hallmark features — teenagers lack maturity, they are reckless and they don’t think of consequences of their actions,” he said. “They make us think, ‘what were you thinking about?’”
During jury selection Hendrix asked prospective jurors to ask themselves if they see juveniles and adults as different in decision-making ability. Some agreed and were ultimately accepted as jurors. Others could not see past the crime regardless of the age Elliott was when he committed it.
One prospective juror during the selection shared his thoughts on why he could not be an impartial member of the jury.
“The girl doesn’t get her life back and the baby doesn’t get its life back. Why does he get his life back?”
Hendrix said witnesses from the Arkansas Department of Corrections, where Elliott has grown from a 16-year-old boy into a 36-year-old man, will be called to testify about the example Elliott is to other inmates and even DOC employees. Elliott tutors not only inmates, but also employees of the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
Hendrix said Elliott has received his GED, an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Hendrix said that he thinks Elliott is the first inmate in the State of Arkansas to have accomplished that.
“He took all these efforts before he ever thought there would be any life after parole,” Hendrix said. “The central idea of redemption is that we are better than the worst thing we have ever done. Murdering someone doesn’t necessarily mean you are just a murderer.”
More than 150 people were called for jury duty on Monday and the process of elimination to the 12 jurors with two alternatives took about six hours. The courtroom was packed with extra chairs being carried in to use.
“I think it took a little bit longer with the notoriety the case has gotten over 20 years,” Rogers said. “We didn’t want jurors to have preconceived notions. We want to get a fair trial for everybody.”
Becky Bell, special to magnoliareporter.comFeb 26, 2020 Updated Mar 2, 2020
Vinita Pater expressed on Wednesday a mother’s anguish over precious moments stolen because her only child was murdered.
“I don’t get to get her hugs anymore. I don’t have the grandchildren and I never will,” Pater said at the Columbia County Justice and Detention Facility.
Her testimony came on the second day of a re-sentencing trial for Matthew Ryan Elliott, now 36 but who was 16 when he was found guilty of capital murder in the death of his girlfriend, Brittni Pater, 15.
“I will never get to see her grow into a beautiful woman. I will never get to see her try on wedding dresses. I will never get to go to a graduation,” Vinita Pater said.
Vinita Pater and her husband, Thomas “Tommy” Pater, were the parents of Brittni Pater. The girl was pregnant when she died in February 2000.
Elliott received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His guilt is not an issue in the current trial. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2012 Arkansas case that mandatory life without parole sentences for defendants under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. New sentencing trials were ordered for Elliott and others who were under the age of 18 when they committed murder.
In Elliott’s situation, this means jurors will consider a sentence of between 10 and 40 years in prison, or a sentence of life. In either case, Elliott could be freed from prison in a relatively short period of time given the fact that he’s already served 20 years.
Elliott bludgeoned Pater 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.
Both of Brittni Pater’s parents were in court Wednesday to testify about how their lives have been impacted with the loss of their daughter.
After court proceedings Wednesday, Vinita Pater said she did not think Elliott should receive a shorter sentence for killing her daughter.
The night Brittni went missing from her home near Lake Columbia, her father started looking for her at all her friend’s houses. He remembered being relieved when he heard she was with Elliott. Thomas Pater said he knew of Elliott because he was a frequent guest at their house and liked to come over and eat steaks he had grilled.
“I thought at least if she’s with Matt she will be alright. I guess I was wrong,” Thomas Pater said.
Thomas Pater said his daughter was his everything.
“She was my life, she was good. She took care of me and her mother,” he said.
A co-defendant who was also convicted of capital murder in the case, William Edward Davis, 17 at the time of the murder, was released in 2018.
Davis was called to the stand Wednesday and said he “felt rehabilitated” after the 18 1/2 years he served in prison. He also said he felt “remorseful to the family.”
Davis knew about the murder preparations. He helped Elliott dig a grave near Davis’ home the day before the murder. He gave Elliott plastic bags to use to protect his car from blood spill and told him about an aluminum pipe he could use as a murder weapon.
But, he also testified he never thought Elliott would actually go through with the crime.
Davis said he had tried several things to convince Elliott, with whom he had been best friends since the first grade, not to go through with the crime. Davis said he had asked his brother-in-law, Bo Burge, to go with him to a deer camp near the murder scene on the night of the killing to try to distract his friend. His aim was to get Elliott focused on playing drinking games.
He also said he refused to go with Elliott when Elliott told him they should go together to kill Brittni.
Burge wasn’t involved in the murder conspiracy.
“I told him, ‘I’m drunk, I’m having fun and I ain’t going nowhere,’” Davis said.
“He said, ‘OK, I’ll do it by myself.’”
When Elliott told Davis that he’d had sex with Brittni, he said he assumed his friend was lying. He said he did begin to question if his friend was talking about more than just dumping his girlfriend when he used the term, “get rid of her.”
Although Davis described Elliott as an outgoing, friendly person who usually socialized with others, he noticed a profound difference in the way Elliott acted on the cold night when he came back to the camp site after being gone for what could have been more than an hour.
“It was cold but I just remembered having the chills when I saw the blood on his face,” Davis said.
Although Davis was angry about his sentence in the beginning, Davis said he had come to understand why he was in the wrong. He said he should have taken more responsibility to tell someone what was going on.
Davis’ murder trial was held first and Elliott testified against him. Davis said Wednesday he understood why his friend testified because at the time Elliott was only 16, and Elliott was still facing a possible death sentence at his trial.
“His way out was to testify against me,” Davis said.
Dr. Charles Kokes of Little Rock, a forensic pathology specialist at the Arkansas Crime Lab, was in court Wednesday to lend expert testimony regarding Brittni Pater’s cause of death. Kokes has been practicing for 34 years and has performed thousands of autopsies.
Kokes said Brittni’s cause of death was blunt force trauma and he listed it as a homicide on his report. During his exam he noted 17 lacerations to the face and the scalp. He testified that the aluminum bar put into evidence earlier by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Phillips could be used to make these injuries when he was shown the bar by Phillips.
“Yes, an instrument of this size, manner and type is consistent with the lacerations and skull fractures.”
Although the victim’s skull was fractured in a multiple pattern like a jigsaw puzzle, skull fractures were not the cause of death. Kokes said a brain hemorrhage is what ultimately killed the victim.
“There would have been substantial force to cause that kind of trauma,” he said.
The state rested its case on Wednesday. The defense begins its case on Thursday.
Becky Bell, special to magnoliareporter.comFeb 28, 2020 Updated Mar 3, 2020
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.”
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.
After a four-day trial and approximately 20 hours of testimony, a Columbia County jury of six men and six women on Friday re-sentenced Matthew Ryan Elliott, 36, of Magnolia to life in prison for the Feb. 5, 2000, murder of 15-year-old Brittni Pater. The jury deliberated for only 30 minutes after closing arguments ceased at 11:45 a.m. The verdict was unanimous.
Elliott, who was an on-again, off-again boyfriend with Pater, was 16 at the time of the crime. The victim was also pregnant. He was convicted of capital murder in April 2000 after pleading guilty in Columbia County Circuit Court. The then-teenager was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Elliott’s re-sentencing trial came due to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, ruling that anyone sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile without the chance for parole was unconstitutional and violated the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Another Supreme Court case, Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, declared that the 2012 ruling should be applied retroactively, thus opening murder convictions of minors to re-sentencing.
The trial this week was not to determine the matter of guilt or innocence. But with the chance of a jury awarding Elliott a new, possibly reduced sentence — capital murder in Arkansas carries a 10- to 40-years or life in prison — the prosecution essentially re-tried the matter, which included the presenting of the evidence again from 20 years ago and convincing a jury of the heinousness nature of Elliott’s crime. The state’s goal was to keep the life sentence. It got what it wanted. Elliott is not eligible for parole.
If Elliott had received a term of years — even the 40-year sentence — he would have been parole eligible immediately after the trial. The sentencing laws require a Class Y Felony to only serve 50% of a term and accounts for meritorious good time credit in prison.
The trial began Tuesday morning in Magnolia. The jury entered its verdict at 12:15 p.m. Friday.
The state was represented by 13th Judicial District Prosecutor Jeffrey Rogers and Deputy Prosecutors Ryan Phillips and Ryan Rainwater. Both of the latter are based in Magnolia and prosecute Columbia County Circuit Court matters. Rogers is based in El Dorado. He is the head prosecutor for the six-county district.
Elliott was represented by defense attorneys J. Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper, partners at the Fuqua Campbell Law Firm in Little Rock.
The state was first to call witnesses. Its testimony began Tuesday afternoon and lasted through Wednesday. The prosecutors relied heavily upon the case’s evidence and an autopsy report from 20 years ago, as well as Elliott’s own account of the murder. The state laid out in great detail how the teenager first learned of Pater’s pregnancy in December 1999 and pre-planned the murder with his best friend at the time, 17-year-old William E. Davis, also of Magnolia, around two weeks prior to Pater’s death. Davis was also convicted for capital murder after a November 2000 jury trial in Columbia County. He he was not, however, involved in the actual killing of Pater on the night of Feb. 5, 2000. Elliott testified against Davis at his the trial.
Davis in June 2017 was re-sentenced to 40 years in prison, with parole eligibility after 50% of the term. He is no longer incarcerated.
Elliott was a student at the time of the murder at Magnolia High School, while Pater was in the ninth grade at Magnolia Junior High School. Elliott testified in 2000 at Davis’ trial, and while taking the stand on Friday, that, after learning of the pregnancy, Pater said she wanted an abortion and that she no longer desired to be with Elliott. She also said, according to Elliott, that if he did not help her with the abortion, she would tell her parents that he raped her.
“I reached the conclusion that I was going to kill her to eliminate the problem,” said Elliott in his 2000 testimony.
Elliott said he was afraid to approach his parents or any other adults about the matter but confided with Davis and came up with a “solution” that initially called for killing Pater outside her home with a 12-gauge shotgun. She lived outside of Magnolia’s city limits, near Lake Columbia.
The firearm method was deemed to be too loud, so Elliott said he thought about using a crossbow but did not like that idea, either. Eventually, he decided on a 2.5-foot aluminum pole that Davis had access to and supplied him with. The plan was to “hit her in the head and kill her,” said Elliott’s testimony.
On the night of Feb. 5, 2000, a Friday, Elliott and Davis formed a plan to tell their parents they would be on a camping trip and lured Pater out of her house around 2 a.m. Elliott told her that he was taking her to get an abortion.
Elliott testified Friday that Pater was calm and carried with her a pillow and blanket as she entered his car. It prompted him to break up emotionally.
Elliott and Davis had already dug a grave at an oil-well site in the Village Community near the deer camp they said they were staying at. Davis even laid down in the grave to make sure a body would fit. But on the night of the murder, Davis got cold feet and did not join Elliott, as was the initial plan.
Eventually, Elliott neared the gravesite and pulled over on the oil well road. He told Pater that he needed to change his license plate so he would not be caught going for an abortion. He grabbed the aluminum rod– which he had padded the handle with Duct Tape for a better grip — then approached Pater’s side of the car and began striking her in the head. She fell upon the first swing. After hitting her 17 times total with the metal pole, Elliott thought she was dead. During the beating, she said “Matt, please” according to his testimony.
Around that time, a car with Davis and his brother-in-law, Bo Burge, who was staying at the deer camp that weekend, approached the oil site. Elliott, who was heavily intoxicated, ran away into the woods. The truck passed, without anyone seeing Pater, according to Elliott’s testimony.
He later came back to the scene where Pater was discovered still barely alive. Elliott then proceeded to run her over with his car to deal the final deathblow.
When asked by Phillips Friday why Elliott didn’t call for help when he found that Pater was still living, he said: “She was past assisting.”
After the murder, Elliott stuck his vehicle on the muddy road and ran to the nearby deer camp where Davis and Burge were, saying that he “needed help.” Elliott remained as the campsite, while Burge and Davis went looking for the car, whereupon they found Pater’s lifeless body and called authorities.
Elliott confessed to the crime almost immediately, but Davis testified this week that his friend at first seemed angrier that he was caught than he was about the murder.
“William Davis sat [on the stand] this week and said you told him ‘but not for William, the plan would have worked,’ said Phillips while questioning Elliott on Friday.
Elliott’s legal team at the re-sentencing relied heavily upon his age at the time of the murder and his good behavior in the Arkansas Department of Correction for the past 20 years.
A medical expert, Arkansas neuropsychologist Dr. Garrett Andrews, testified Thursday that the 16-year-old mind and brain are not as developed as adults, and that sometimes the immaturity affects decision-making and rational thought. And when alcohol is involved, the symptoms are exacerbated.
“It was the most he had ever drank before,” said Depper in her closing statement Friday. “He was not a drinker. He was not a partier. He was not acting rationally.”
Depper also noted that Davis “never said ‘don’t do it.’”
The defense called numerous witnesses Thursday and Friday morning, including many high-level Arkansas Department of Correction employees and teachers, a former inmate who claimed his life was turned around by Elliott, and pastors involved in ministry in the prison system.
They nearly all testified that Elliott was an upstanding person and easily one of the best inmates in ADC. One witness, Jerrod Self, a former field manager at Tucker Prison who knew Elliott for around eight years in prison, even considered Elliott to be an “exceptional” person.
“I feel like Matthew is a better person than I am sometimes,” said Self.
Elliott worked as a porter in Self’s office and was tasked with basic maintenance and administrative duties. The position is one only given to the best-behaving prisoners.
“He’s a hard worker and always accountable,” Self added.
The current housing manager at Arkansas Community Correction noted that Elliott was not like other inmates, whose main goals are to “blend in” in prison and follow the “inmate code.” The “code” includes tipping off other prisoners to surprise inspections or other information about the administration that could be shared by someone in a position such as Elliott’s.
“We put him in some tight spots sometimes, and he never budged,” said Self.
Self and multiple other former and current ADC employees said they would have no problem being Elliott’s neighbor on the outside and would associate with him.
Elliott is also known for his educational studies in prison. He was the only person that many witnesses knew of to get their GED in prison, then go on to obtain associate’s and bachelor’s certificates. Elliott earned his four-year college degree through mail correspondence classes at Ohio University.
Elliott’s mother, Becky, also testified during the re-sentencing on her son’s behalf. She said that, around the time of the murder, she was in a crumbling marriage and the home had many problems. She felt her son was unable to come to her with any problems. She also said that Elliott was heavily involved with his church and had begun giving small sermons.
While reflecting on her son’s actions, she was brought to tears Thursday, looking into the court audience at the Pater family, saying that he “hurt them terribly” and that “It changed all our lives” and “we feel this together.”
The statements prompted Pater’s mother, Vinita, who was also in tears, to quip back, “But you get to see your baby and I don’t.” Vinita was then sternly warned by Circuit Judge David W. Talley Jr. to hold her comments.
When Elliott took the stand Friday morning, he did not address the Pater family directly, but said at the time of the crime he “did not understand the finality of death at 16 years old.”
When Phillips asked him how many people he thought he killed with his actions, Elliott said that the only life he took was that of Pater’s, but that he thinks he destroyed “a lot of lives.”
“The impact of what I did is more extensive than I even know,” he said. “I have had new moments of realization through this whole week, even today. I hurt the Pater family, my own family, and an entire community.”
In closing arguments, Elliott’s legal team again harped on their client’s case for redemption, pointing to how involved he is in the prison chapel — playing in the band and attending services and confiding in ministers how much he regrets his actions — and how he has bettered himself by seeking out educational opportunities and has zero record of bad behavior in prison.
Depper also reinforced how, according to the defense’s expert witness, the minor mind is one of confusion, immaturity, and irrationality, and that actions an adult would deem crazy are sometimes not seen that way in the eyes of a teenager.
“We’re talking about a juvenile,” she said. “One that has taken full responsibility and admitted his crime.”
Depper ultimately asked the jury to hand her client a 40-year sentence.
“Ten years is not enough,” she said. “Twenty years is not enough. Thirty years is even not enough,” she said.
In a rebuttal, Phillips noted that he “didn’t even know where to begin” with that he had just heard, saying that his biggest fear in the case was the passage of 20 years. He hoped the evidence and case still rang as true as it did in 2000. The prosecutor also pointed to Elliott as not a confused juvenile when he was 16, but a “cold-blooded, calculated killer.”
“This is not about juvenile or non-juvenile,” he said as he faced the jury. “No murder is rational. …The alcohol is a scapegoat. William Davis is a scapegoat.”
Phillips added: “He’s been in ADC for 20 years. He’s had Christmases with his family. He’s had the opportunity to get an education. He ‘s been able to be in the choir and the band and had the opportunity to find salvation. Brittni Pater does not. He took that from her. She’s not on this earth. He did that. Y’all have one side of the story. …He said she was going to claim rape. Guess who is not here to tell her side of the story?”
The prosecutor also pointed to Elliott’s well-praised actions while in prison.
“You’ve heard testimony about Matthew and how he’s doing good things in ADC,” Phillips said. “In the free world, things have not gone that well.”
In his final statement to the jury, Phillips recalled earlier testimony from Pater’s father, Thomas, who said that when he found his daughter to be missing on Feb. 5, 2000, he knew she was safe with Elliott.
“If she’s with Matt, she’s OK,” he recalled saying during his Wednesday testimony.
“How wrong was that,” Phillips said Friday.
After the verdict was announced, the families of the victim and Elliott remained quiet but tears were shed by both sides.
“There’s no closure for the Pater family,” said Rogers after the trial, “but maybe they can rest easier knowing justice has been served.”
Elliott still can appeal the decision of the jury trial. He now has 30 days to do so.