The parents of two young women who were murdered here were among those in the dignitary-filled room June 21 at Charlottesville’s Central Library, where Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation expanding the collection of DNA for misdemeanor crimes that, had it previously been in effect, could have saved UVA student Hannah Graham and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington.
Many there remembered the frantic search for Graham in 2014 as the school year began, and despite hundreds of searchers, it was five weeks before her body was found. Morgan Harrington disappeared in October 2009, while here for a Metallica concert. Her body was found three months later in the same part of Albemarle County as Graham’s, an area known to their killer, Jesse Matthew.
Northam’s daughter was at UVA at the same time as Graham. “These tragedies are very difficult,” he said. “We can only imagine.”
But, said the governor, “We can make changes.”
The legislation was spearheaded by Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, who’s long been a proponent of DNA databanks, and who originally prodded the state to fund its database in the ’90s. While everyone convicted of a felony goes into the database, Harding has pushed for collection of DNA for misdemeanor convictions, and says that 70 percent of first-time violent felons had a previous misdemeanor conviction.
“Three years ago, [Morgan’s mother] Gil Harrington worked with me and we got nine misdemeanors added, including exposing yourself, which is what Jesse Matthews Sr. did,” says Harding. Familial DNA would have linked to his son, who was convicted of a brutal 2005 attack in Fairfax, “and Morgan Harrington would never have been killed.”
In 2017, the Grahams joined Harding to urge the Virginia Crime Commission to study misdemeanors linked to violent felonies, and it identified seven more. “Of those, we only got funding for two—trespassing and domestic assault,” says Harding. Jesse Matthew was convicted of trespassing in 2010, and had his DNA been collected, “it would have prevented Hannah Graham’s death,” says the sheriff.
Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public safety, noted, “DNA can convict the guilty, and maybe even more importantly, it can exonerate the innocent.”
The governor also signed a bill that requires fingerprints for those arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Northam called the bipartisan legislation an example of the Virginia way: “The Virginia way is working together.” House Democratic Leader David Toscano carried the bills, which got support from Republican Delegate Rob Bell, who was present and who chairs the Courts of Justice committee. Republican state Senator Mark Obenshain carried a similar version in the Senate.
John and Sue Graham came to Richmond “again and again,” said Toscano.
After the signing, Sue Graham said, “What happened to Hannah won’t happen to another young woman in the same way.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Harrington, who founded Help Save the Next Girl. “So many points along the way, this legislation would have stopped Jesse Matthew. It’s too late for Morgan.”