Convicted murderer Jesse Matthew pleaded guilty to the first degree murders and abductions of both Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington in Albemarle County Circuit Court on March 2. He was given four life sentences—the maximum sentence for each count.
Matthew will avoid the death penalty because Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci nolle prossed his capital murder charge as part of the plea agreement. Tracci explained that the Commonwealth can re-indict Matthew for the capital murder charge if he should violate the terms of the plea agreement.
For the complete statement of facts about the Hannah Graham case, including a timeline of what happened on the night she was abducted, DNA conclusions and evidence gathered at Matthew’s apartment read Hannah Graham Statement of Facts 3-2-16. For the statement of facts about the Morgan Harrington case, read Morgan Harrington Statement of Facts 3-2-16.
Before the hearing, Matthew’s family and friends lined up to hug Harrington’s mother, Gil. Declining to give his own statement during the hearing, Matthew’s attorney said, “He is very sorry.”
Parents of both slain college students spoke about the impact the murders have had on their lives during and after the hearing.
Graham’s mother, Susan Graham, said, “When we imagine the trauma she endured at the hands of Matthew, our hearts break.” Though details of how Matthew abducted and killed each girl were typed up and handed to Judge Cheryl Higgins, they were not read aloud. Matthew’s attorney, Doug Ramseur, said he is unaware whether the parents have yet learned those details.
“Matthew dumped our girl’s body like a bag of trash,” Susan Graham said, adding that her daughter’s lifeless body was picked over by buzzards. Her daughter, an 18-year-old UVA student who disappeared September 13, 2014, was found dead several weeks later in a field off Old Lynchburg Road.
According to the statement of facts released by the county, the crop top Graham was last seen wearing the night of her abduction was found near her skeletal remains, unzipped and inside out. Her jeans were also found nearby, with one leg inside out and holes in the denim that had not been present earlier in the night.
Graham’s father, John, said many people thought his daughter would change the world. “She did change the world, but at a terrible price.”
Two of the life sentences Matthew was given March 2 pertained to Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who was last seen at a Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena on October 17, 2009. Her body was found in a field in January 2010, about five miles from where Graham’s body was found almost five years later.
Harrington’s father, Dan, said he lives in “a world that’s gone gray, flat and devoid of joy,” now that his “beautiful, smart, talented and bright” daughter is gone. “Our family has felt the pain of this loss every second of every day.”
He and his wife, Gil, have built an African school and founded a scholarship in Harrington’s name. They also created the Help Save the Next Girl nonprofit foundation to sensitize young women and girls to predatory dangers.
Ramseur spoke after the sentencing, saying “This is obviously not a day for celebration,” before media fired questions about his client, such as why Matthew didn’t apologize himself and if he ever explained why he murdered two young women. The attorney deflected the questions and said it’s “unfortunate” that, because Matthew won’t have a trial, the public might never hear evidence from the the defense. He did say in an initial statement during the hearing that Matthew decided to plead guilty because he didn’t want a death sentence “hanging over his head.”
Legal expert David Heilberg says most capital murder cases now end in plea bargains, and he expected this as the likely outcome for Matthew.
Now that the death penalty is off the table, Matthew’s four additional life sentences are debatably meaningless, Heilberg says. Last summer, Matthew was given three life sentences for abducting, violently sexually assaulting and attempting to kill a Fairfax woman in 2005.
“You only have one life to serve,” Heilberg adds. “At this point, it can’t get any worse.”
Watch a video of Gil Harrington addressing the public below.