Ryan Matthews graduated on December 14 from Texas Woman's University
CNN  — 

Over the weekend, Ryan Matthews – a loving dad, husband and a “gentle giant,” as his family describes him – graduated college.

Fifteen years ago, such a joyous occasion seemed unlikely. Matthews was a death row inmate in Louisiana.

After he was exonerated and released, he set out to rebuild a life after death row.

“He used it as the fuel for him to accomplish each of his accomplishments,” his wife, Candacee Matthews says. “He’s never been angry, he’s never been bitter.”

He’s been determined.

Matthews graduated Saturday from Texas Woman’s University with a bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences.

It wasn’t easy. Candacee Matthews says she watched her husband come back from 12-hour overnight shifts at the packaging firm where he works, take their four children to school and later sit down and study.

Ryan Matthews with his two daughters, Chassidy (left) and Re'yan (right) before heading to a school book fair

But Ryan Matthews says it was what he needed to do. He owed it to himself and to everyone who helped get him out, including the attorneys who helped him get on his feet after he was exonerated.

“Now I’m doing my part,” he said.

He’s still thinking about what he wants to do next – maybe financial planning, accounting or some kind of environmental work.

“It’s all something new for me,” he says. “But I welcome the challenge. I love it.”

‘People need to know it’s still happening’

Matthews was 17 years old when he was arrested for capital murder in 1997.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me, I had nothing to do with this,” he says. “But I just kind of knew this happens to people that are innocent.”

A white grocery store owner had been shot and killed in an attempted robbery in Bridge City, Louisiana – about 10 miles west of New Orleans – and witnesses identified Matthews as the suspect. Matthews and a friend were driving in a nearby area in a car similar to the getaway vehicle, the Innocence Project says.

Ryan Matthews and his sister, Monique Coleman, at his college graduation

“We knew what the verdict was going to be,” his sister, Monique Coleman, told CNN. “He was a young black man and it was a white store owner.”

Matthews was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 – despite forensic evidence that excluded his DNA from the mask the suspect left behind at the scene of the crime, Coleman says.

When she first visited him in jail, she says her brother didn’t even know who the murder victim in his case had been. The advocacy journey for him began the moment he told her he didn’t do it.

In the years that followed, Coleman and her family fought alongside many others who claimed their loved ones were wrongfully imprisoned – including Rodney Reed’s family, Coleman says.

“A lot of people think the criminal justice system is flawless and that if you’re there you belong there,” Coleman said. “And that’s just not true.”

Last year, 151 people in the US were exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In at least 107 of those cases, there was some kind of official misconduct, according to the registry, which collects and analyzes information about exonerations of criminal defendants.

“Official misconduct encompasses a wide range of behavior—from police officers threatening witnesses, to forensic analyst falsifying test results, to child welfare workers pressuring children to claim sexual abuse where none occurred,” the registry says.

Those who were exonerated in 2018 spent an average of about 10.9 years in prison.

“It’s disturbing and people need to know that it’s still happening and there are a lot of people that have not been freed and there are probably a lot of people that have been killed,” Coleman said.

Matthews was exonerated in 2004 after serving seven years behind bars, five of them on death row.

The lasting impacts

Her brother’s release was a bittersweet moment, Coleman says. That’s because people don’t often realize what fighting for exoneration looks like.

“The family dismantles, people get tired, it’s expensive,” Coleman says.

It’s physically and mentally exhausting. The trips to prison, the limited interactions, the waiting.

“You gotta go there and get searched, the dogs have to sniff you and if the dogs alert (something), then you have to set strip searched,” she said.

And inside, it’s no better.

“The first time I saw Ryan he was in a disciplinary camp and I screamed and hollered the whole time,” Coleman says. “His hair was all over his head, he smelled like feces, it was just bad.”

Ryan Matthews said he tried to remain focused on getting out of prison, passing along any information that might help to his families and attorneys.

“I thought, ‘If I lose my mind, how could I help anyone?’”

Candacee Matthews says her relationship with Ryan – the two have known each other since they were teenagers – faced its own set of challenges while he was in prison.

Candacee and Ryan Matthews

But she says they’ve been inseparable since the day he walked out. They moved to Denton, Texas, where they still live today and even enrolled in college together for their associate’s degrees. In March, they’ll celebrate 11 years of marriage.

Life after exoneration hasn’t been without hurdles, Ryan Matthews told CNN.

For instance, when he was released as a 24-year-old, he had no resume. And his arrest record was still stamped with the word “murder” – despite his exoneration.

“I had to watch him not get jobs that he maybe should have,” Candacee Matthews says. “He does not like to use his story as a crutch.

Coleman says it’s only the beginning of the re-integration process.

“The government doesn’t do anything to help people reintegrate,” she says. “We’re hoping someone gives Ryan a break.”

What life is like now

More than a decade since his time on death row, Ryan Matthews doesn’t let much get him down.

Most days, he’s busy enjoying his 3-year-old son, Ryan Jr., and spending time with his daughters – Chassidy, Re’yan and Alexis.

His journey, he says, has been all about perseverance.

“You might fall but make sure you get up,” he says. “It’s not over, it can still be done.”

This week, he says he’s been reveling in joy over his degree.

“I didn’t expect this,” he says. “To actually get it… it feels so good.”

Ryan Matthews with his daughter, Re'yan and son, Ryan Jr,. in Ryan Jr.'s birthday party

As for his sister, she didn’t hesitate to pack her bags when he told her he was moving from Louisiana to Texas with his family after his release.

“We live 10 minutes away from each other,” she says. “The rule is, ‘call me when you get home.’”

He’s always felt like the protector, she says, and she wants to be nearby.