Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins rebuffed the arguments of Jesse Matthew’s attorney that she recuse herself from Matthew’s capital murder trial for the slaying of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham because she has a daughter who was a second-year student at UVA like Graham.
Defense attorney Doug Ramseur also said because Higgins signed 25 out of approximately 54 search warrants, upon which the defense anticipates “significant and voluminous litigation,” her ruling on them would create the appearance of impropriety. He urged her to remove herself from a death penalty case that would be under a microscope, while he conceded there is no Virginia law on the matter and it’s left entirely to the judge’s discretion.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford argued that a judge is expected to put that out of her mind when reexamining whether evidence should be suppressed, and she said the majority of the search warrants pertained to Hannah Graham, and Matthew had no standing to complain about those.
“I would suggest we turn to the community and the community’s perception,” she said. The community wants the judge normally seated in this court and the commonwealth’s attorney elected in this community, not someone from South Boston, she said.
Higgins agreed. “I do not find I should recuse myself because my daughter goes to UVA. UVA is not the victim.” Noting the school’s approximately 14,000 students, she said, “My daughter has absolutely no connection with Hannah Graham.”
The judge was concerned about the appearance of impropriety on the search warrants, and said she’d have another judge rule on those.
There’s no law on whether a judge can partially excuse herself from a case, said Ramseur. “When there’s an appearance of impropriety, a judge should recuse from the entire matter, not just some parts,” he said. “It’s like the phrase ‘you can’t be slightly pregnant.'”
Higgins said she was not recusing herself, she was “proceeding with an abundance of caution.” The trial date is set for July 5, 2016.
Matthew was in the courtroom in the orange jumpsuit of Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. And while Graham’s parents were not present, Gil Harrington, mother of Morgan Harrington, whose death has been linked to Matthew, was.