Prosecutor to seek death penalty in Hannah Graham slaying

The man accused of abducting and killing a University of Virginia student has been charged with capital murder and a prosecutor said Tuesday she will seek the death penalty if the case goes to trial.

The indictment accusing Jesse L. Matthew Jr. of capital murder in the death of Hannah Graham is based on new forensic evidence, Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford told reporters after a hearing in which new defense attorneys with experience in death penalty cases were appointed. She declined to elaborate on the evidence.

Matthew, a former hospital worker and taxi driver, already was charged with first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile and is being held without bond.

Shackled and handcuffed, Matthew showed no expression at Tuesday's hearing. He had been served the new indictment earlier in the day, Lunsford said.

Lunsford said that while the new forensic evidence was crucial, many factors go into pursuing a death penalty case.

“I would consider the nature of the offense, the history of the defendant, the exact nature of what happened,” said Lunsford.

Graham, 18, disappeared in September after a night out with friends in Charlottesville, where the school is located. Her remains were found weeks later in a wooded area about 12 miles from the campus. The case shocked the campus and came amid rising national concern about sexual assaults and other serious crimes around universities.

She died from “homicidal violence” but the exact cause is unknown, authorities have said.

In surveillance video, Graham can be seen walking unsteadily and running at times, past a pub and a service station and then across a seven-block strip of bars, restaurants and shops. Another video captured her leaving a restaurant with Matthew, who had an arm around her. He was the last person seen with Graham, according to authorities.

Graham's disappearance prompted a monthlong search that ended last Oct. 18 when a searcher found her remains roughly six miles from a field where another missing student, Morgan Harrington, was found nearly five years earlier. Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student, disappeared while attending a rock concert in Charlottesville in October 2009.

After police named Matthew a person of interest in Graham's disappearance, he fled and was later apprehended in Texas. He was initially charged with abduction with intent to defile, a felony that empowered police to swab his cheek for a DNA sample. That sample connected Matthew to a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax County, a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C., according to authorities. His trial in that case is set for June 8.

The DNA evidence in the Fairfax sexual assault, in turn, linked Matthew to the Harrington case, authorities have said. He has not been charged in Harrington's death.

“As long as we're alive, we will bear this grief and this burden,” said Morgan Harrington's mother, Gil Harrington, who attended Tuesday's brief hearing in the Graham case. “You want to ask why, but there's no answer for that.”

Graham's parents didn't attend the hearing, and Lunsford declined to talk about her conversations with them leading up to the new charge. Graham, a sophomore, was born in England and moved to Virginia at age 5. She was a member of the university's ski and snowboard team and a French culture enthusiast, according to her parents.

Matthew previously had been accused of raping students at Liberty University and Christopher Newport University in 2002 and 2003. Matthew had played football at both schools. The cases were dropped after the women declined to press charges.

On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins appointed regional capital defender Doug Ramseur and Charlottesville attorney Michael Hemenway to replace the lawyers who represented Matthew on the first-degree murder charge. State law requires at least two lawyers for all capital murder defendants. Lunsford said this will be her first capital murder prosecution. The jury also would have the option of convicting Matthew of the lesser murder charge, Lunsford said.

Ramseur declined to comment after the hearing.

A June 25 hearing has been scheduled to set the trial date.

 

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