There is one thing that both the prosecution and defense agreed on as Donna Matthews’ homicide trial began: Matthews shot and killed her estranged boyfriend Michael Gayan.
It’s the “why” of the killing that is in dispute.
In opening arguments Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Angelina Gabriele said Matthews, 52, plotted for months to kill Gayan, flying to Kenosha from her home in Hawaii, duping Gayan into leaving his house, then hiding inside for his return, planning to time her attack to coincide with Kenosha’s Fourth of July fireworks to cover up the sound of gunfire.
She shot him after he came back inside and settled into a chair, then struck him in the head with the handgun after he fell to the floor.
Gayan’s body was not found for nearly a month. When he was found, police quickly focused on Matthews because of their past contact with her about the relationship, and because of their online communications.
Matthews had started dating Gayan when she lived in Kenosha. When their relationship ended, she moved several times, telling her family and friends she needed to leave Kenosha to get away from Gayan. At the time of the killing, she had been living for months in Hawaii and had filed a restraining order against Gayan there.
According to Gabriele, Matthews decided to kill Gayan because Gayan had begun trying to humiliate her by posting screenshots of sexual messages between the two of them, and partially naked photos of her.
The prosecutor argued that Matthews had lied to her family and friends about the nature of her relationship with Gayan, telling them that he was stalking her when, she said, she had actually maintained a relationship with him.
“Her all-consuming fear was that her friends would find out the truth about her,” Gabriele said. “She became consumed with preventing him from embarrassing her on social media.
“She was not defending herself against physical harm; she was defending herself from Facebook posts,” Gabriele said.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Urdangen said in his opening statement there is no question that Matthews killed Gayan.
But he said the defense will attempt to prove that it was self-defense, feeling she needed to protect herself and her family after he had stalked her, sexually abused her and threatened to kill her and members of her family.
Legally, self-defense requires that the person be in imminent danger or harm. Prosecutors argue that Matthews could not have felt at risk of imminent danger when she lived in Hawaii, 4,000 miles from Gayan.
But the defense argues that Matthews’ mental state was that she was in imminent danger because of ongoing stalking. Urdangen said she felt pushed to act when restraining orders and complaints to police about his behavior had no impact.
“This is a story of a woman who protected herself and her family against a dangerous and deranged man,” Urdangen said, calling Gayan “obsessive and unrelenting.”
Matthews’ brother Derrick Matthews is also charged with homicide for his role in Gayan’s death. He admitted that he provided his sister with a handgun and brought her to Gayan’s house, knowing she planned to kill him.
Derrick Matthews testified against his sister Tuesday.
He testified that Matthews had planned the killing, and that he had helped her because she had convinced him that Gayan was threatening her and that the police were failing to help her.
He also testified that he was taken aback when he was shown text messages between his sister and Gayan that appeared to be affectionate or sexual that were sent at a time when she was telling him she was trying to free herself from Gayan.
Derrick Matthews admitted on questioning that his knowledge of Gayan’s threats came largely from his sister. He said he had not seen her threatened directly, or received direct threats from Gayan to him or his family.
On cross-examination he said he believed his sister thought Gayan would kill her.
“You believed that this guy was a horrible person who was going to kill your sister?” Urdangen asked.
“Yes,” Derrick Matthews answered.
“It was live or die for her, and you believed that?” Urdangen asked.
Derrick Matthews said there were other unsettling interactions with Gayan and the family.
In one, Matthews showed him a picture Gayan had taken of himself wearing their deceased father’s clothing and jewelry, and a message that said, “Should I flush your father’s ashes and give him a burial at sea?”
In another incident, he showed up unannounced at the Matthewses’ elderly mother’s out-of-state home with flowers.
“You perceived that as a threat to your mother, correct?” Urdangen asked. Derrick Matthews said he did.
Once, Derrick Matthews said, Gayan came to his home and asked him to intervene with his sister, asking him to get his sister to return to him. Derrick Matthews said while Gayan did not make a direct threat, his manner was intense and dangerous.
“To me he seemed not like a man in love, but a man possessed,” Derrick Matthews said.
However, he indicated he regretted helping his sister.
“When I was asked if I would give her a gun today, I would not,” he said.
Asked again about what his feelings were about the case now, he said, “I’m not sure what you mean, but the situation could have been resolved in some way other than murder, probably.”
The trial continues today and is expected to last up to three weeks.