After sex assault plea, focus shifts to student’s slaying

Author: Associated Press
Published: Updated:

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) – Gil Harrington, mother of slain student Morgan Harrington, summed up the state of affairs after Jesse Matthew entered a plea Wednesday in a decade-old sexual assault that has been linked by DNA evidence to two other crimes: “We’re one third of the way there.”

Matthew’s surprise Alford plea – a type of guilty plea in which he acknowledged the evidence against him without an explicit admission of guilt – in Fairfax County shifted focus to what now looms: a capital murder trial in Albemarle County for the highly publicized abduction and death last year of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

Also unresolved is whether Matthew will face criminal charges in Harrington’s death. Authorities say Matthew is linked to the Harrington case by DNA evidence but have not yet charged him.

Matthew’s conviction in the Fairfax case could have an impact at the Graham trial. While prosecutors would likely be barred from mentioning the conviction in the guilt phase of that trial, they would be able to tell jurors about it in the sentencing phase to bolster their argument for a death penalty.

“Now he’s convicted of some of the most serious crimes you can be convicted of,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh told reporters outside court.

In Fairfax, Matthew’s plea Wednesday came midtrial, after three days of testimony that included the victim’s harrowing account of fighting to prevent her assailant from raping her and DNA evidence linking Matthew to the crime.

Prosecutors had just rested their case and the judge had just rejected defense lawyers’ effort to get the case tossed out of court. They argued that the DNA could have been inadvertently transferred by coming into contact with a common surface, and pointed out that nobody, including the victim, had been able to identify Matthew as being in the area at the time of the crime.

But Judge David Schell called the evidence against Matthew overwhelming. Schell accepted the plea on all three charges: attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile and sexual assault.

He set an Oct. 2 sentencing date, and could impose a sentence of up to life in prison. At a hearing next week, the victim, who flew back from India to testify, can give victim-impact testimony.

“She wants to tell the judge how this harmed her, even to this day,” Morrogh said. The Associated Press generally does not identify sexual assault victims.

Morrogh said he struck no plea deal with the defense. He declined to say whether he will seek a life sentence, but when asked the chances of whether Matthew will ever see the light of day, he said, “I hope nil.”

The Alford plea takes the jury out of the sentencing equation. The judge alone will determine that.

Willie McDuffy of Centreville, one of the jurors, said Wednesday morning’s testimony linking Matthew to the fingernail DNA left him believing Matthew was guilty, though he was keeping an open mind for the defense.

He said he watched Matthew closely during the trial and described him as “kind of oblivious.” McDuffy said that the victim’s testimony was moving, and that he and the other jurors were a little disappointed to have the decision taken out of their hands.

“I did feel for her. It did make me tear up a little bit,” McDuffy said.

The victim told jurors Monday that her attacker grabbed her just steps from the door to her townhouse and carried her into a darkened area, where he ripped off her clothes and molested her. She fought and scratched him, yielding the crucial DNA evidence, until her attacker ran off as a bystander approached.

“He physically picked her up like a baby … and carried her into the darkness,” Morrogh said in court Wednesday. “He did that to render her helpless for his purpose: to kill her and molest her for his pleasure.”

Matthew’s family declined to comment as they left the courtroom.

Gil Harrington, who sat through the entire trial, said she’s intent on pursuing justice for her daughter but for now is gratified that “this criminal will never hurt anyone again.”

In Albemarle County, a hearing is scheduled later this month to set a trial date in Matthew’s capital murder case connected to Graham’s abduction and death.

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