Man sentenced to life in prison for murder of Vidalia educator

Published 5:29 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2024

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VIDALIA, La. — Seventh Judicial District Division A Judge Kathy Johnson said she had only one option Wednesday as she sentenced the man convicted of killing a Vidalia educator.

“There is only one possible sentence for you Mr. Mason,” Johnson said to Matt Lee Mason Jr.

Johnson sentenced Mason to life imprisonment at hard labor without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

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As Johnson pointed out, according to Louisiana revised statute 14:30.1 there was not a choice of what the sentence would be for Mason when he was found guilty of the second-degree murder of Tyberia Bell.

However, there had been a motion filed for a new trial by Mason’s attorney Eric Talley on Tuesday prior to the scheduled sentencing. Johnson denied that motion on Wednesday.

On the morning of Aug. 21, 2022, Tyberia Bell was found dead inside her house. Vidalia Police Department investigated and evidence pointed to her ex-boyfriend, Mason, had strangled her to death.

Talley had argued for a new trial on the basis that law enforcement witnesses had testified against Mason’s credibility by stating that he lied about his location the morning Bell was murdered. Talley also argued that Mason had been repeatedly denied his right to legal counsel prior to, during and after his arrest while being questioned by police officers.

“They didn’t ask him if he wanted to waive his rights,” Talley said.

Assistant District Attorney Austin Lipsey said that the law enforcement’s testimony about Mason’s credibility was based on the fact that evidence showed he was not truthful about where he was and at what time he was there. Footage from several cameras during the night and through the early morning hours when Tyberia Bell was murdered pointed to Mason being at the crime scene.

Over the course of a five-day trial last week, Vidalia Police Department Lead Investigator Jimmy Watts had testified that Mason had lied.

“When Officer Watts testified to Mr. Matt Mason lying, perhaps he should have said Mr. Mason was being untruthful, which is the same thing,” Johnson said Wednesday. “The court finds that he made that statement based on prior statements that had been untruthful that were made by Mr. Mason about his location that night. He was not at the bar in Natchez during the time period that he alleged.”

Johnson further said Mason had “voluntarily waived his rights” when he continued to talk to officers after being told his rights.

Tyberia Bell’s family spoke out prior to Mason’s sentencing.

Palmer Brown, Bell’s sister, turned to Mason and addressed him in the courtroom.

“You know what you told me? ‘I would never hurt Tyberia. I love her.’ … That was one thing you didn’t lie about. You didn’t hurt her. You killed her.”

Carolyn Slack, who was a friend of Bell, spoke about her character.

“She was my very best friend. She was a wonderful friend to everybody,” Slack said. “She was a lady who greeted everyone with that big old grin she had and a hug. She was God-fearing and carried herself like God commanded her, to love one another. I was honored that a woman of her caliber called me her friend. She greeted the less fortunate with the same love she gave everyone else.”

After the death of her husband, Bell had raised their three children alone. Xavier Bell, her son, said, “Now we have to go through our adult years without parents.”

“She adored her only grandchild Tatum, who is just a toddler,” Slack said. Bell also taught special needs children at Vidalia Junior High School.

“She got up every morning to greet them on the bus,” Slack said. “She called them her babies. … When investigators questioned you (Mason), you said you loved Tyberia more than your own mother. I can only pray that you never get a chance to love anyone else that much.”