A New London man with "a history of violence" was arraigned Monday on charges that he killed two neighbors and then set their multi-family home on fire Friday.
Wearing a hospital gown, Joel Matthews, 29, of 36 Blinman St. appeared briefly in New London Superior Court. He nodded when the judge asked him if he understood his rights.
Matthews is accused of killing Noel Starback, 57, and Sherry Roush, 50, by striking each of them with a blunt object. He told police he set the house on fire in an attempt to conceal the crime. Matthews lived on the second floor and Starback and Roush on the first floor of the Blinman Street apartment house.
The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Monday ruled that Starback and Roush died as a result of blunt trauma to the head and that the manner of death was homicide.
Matthews is charged with capital felony, two counts of murder and second-degree arson.
Under current Connecticut law, a person who is convicted of a capital felony can be sentenced to either the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of release. A person can be charged with capital felony under any of eight special circumstances. In Matthews' case, he was charged because he allegedly killed two people at the same time or in the course of a single transaction.
In the last two weeks, the state Senate and House of Representatives each passed a bill ending the death penalty in the state for anyone convicted in the future. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he will sign the bill but has not yet done so.
New London State's Attorney Michael L. Regan said he could not comment on whether the state would seek the death penalty in the Matthews case. Typically, the state does not announce its intention in capital cases until it has determined whether aggravating or mitigating factors are involved. In recent years in New London County, the state has sought a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release rather than the death penalty in capital cases.
No further information was available as to why Matthews killed his neighbors. A prosecutor's report was sealed.
A bail commissioner said Matthews was born in New London and is unemployed. He said Matthews admitted to having issues with alcohol. Matthews often could be seen walking or standing on Broad Street carrying a basketball.
In 2004, Matthews was charged in New London with illegal possession of half an ounce to less than 4 ounces of a controlled substance and fined $85. In October 2005, Matthews shot a man in front of Sam's Food Store on Ocean Avenue in New London. He was sentenced in 2006 to 10 years in prison, suspended after three years served and three years of probation, for first-degree assault.
The commissioner on Monday recommended that the bail remain at $5 million because of Matthews' violent history. Prosecutor Christa L. Baker also said the bond should remain at $5 million.
"He has a history of violence," Baker said. "The crimes were heinous in nature."
Judge Kevin P. McMahon said the state has a good case against Matthews. He set the bond at $1 million cash, which he noted is actually higher than the recommended $5 million bond.
McMahon continued the case to May 1 at the court on Huntington Street, where the more serious crimes are prosecuted.
After the hearing, Starback's sister, flanked by a man, left the courthouse crying. She had no comment.
Starback and Roush were often seen walking downtown. Starback was a handyman whose carpentry can be seen at Y-Knot Cafe and Bank Street Cafe. In 2007, he repainted the 30 steel carousel horses at Ocean Beach Park.
Arthea Thornton, a friend of Matthews and his mother, said she attended the hearing because she couldn't believe that Matthews was capable of such a crime.
"I had to see for myself," she said. "He can't be right in the head."