This week a Grand Jury indicted Jesse Matthew, Jr., the suspect in the University of VA student Hannah Graham’s disappearance, on first degree murder and abduction charges. The penalty, if he is convicted, is life in prison. The Commonwealth is not seeking the death penalty. Pursuant to the ethics law in Virginia, the prosecutors will not discuss any of the merits of the case which might substantially affect the jury’s outcome. There will not be discussions on evidence, trial strategy and their reasons for not pursuing the death penalty. With the Grand Jury returning the charges, Albemarle County prosecutors assert that there is enough evidence for a conviction. That remains to be seen.
Hannah Graham went missing on September 13, 2014. Her remains were found on October 8 which consisted of a skull and bones on abandoned property in a remote area south of Charlottesville. And when surveillance photos surfaced on Matthew and Graham outside a bar on the night of her disappearance, Matthew became suspect number one. His DNA has been linked to a 2005 Fairfax sexual assault case, Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington whose case remains without any criminal charges. The prosecution was able to legally get a DNA specimen from Matthew which allowed for the link to Graham and the other two women.
While the prosecution is not commenting on the evidence that it intends to pursue, it is quite likely that the case is still a circumstantial one. Circumstantial means there is no eyewitness who will link Matthew directly to murdering Graham. And that may be a key reason as to why the Commonwealth declined to seek the death penalty. The death penalty, at times, places an unspoken higher burden on jurors to convict a defendant knowing that death is at stake. And circumstantial cases are already tough ones. The Commonwealth will need more than merely placing Matthew’s DNA on Graham and the surveillance photo. First degree murder requires proof that Matthew committed an unlawful premeditated killing of Graham. Law enforcement painstakingly sought for evidence to meet their burden following the discovery of Graham’s remains. And photos of Matthew were shown to neighbors living in the area where Graham’s remains were found. Many abandoned properties are in the area. If the DNA of Graham was found near where Graham’s remains were found, it would further link him to her murder. It was believed that Mathew who attended high school in the area, also has ties to the area where Graham was found.
On February 18, Matthew will appear by video camera on the charges. At that time, he will enter a formal plea of not guilty or guilty. Arraignment hearings are typically very short with only a plea being entered and the next date set in the case. A trial date may be set on February 18.
Now with the 2005 Fairfax County sexual assault case postponed, it is not known which case will be tried first. If convicted on all of the pending charges including the ones in Fairfax County, Matthew would receive multiple life sentences. It is also not known what defenses are anticipated. At one time, his attorney, former Albemarle prosecutor Jim Camblos, indicated that a mental examination might be requested. In a circumstantial case as well as in any criminal case, the burden remains on the prosecution to prove each and every element of the charge of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. And depending on the evidence against Matthew without an eye witness, that may be a difficult one. While many are already to convict and sentence Matthew in the court of public opinion, he will still face a trial on the charges.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She has successfully prosecuted numerous homicides and sex crimes.