A Fairfax County judge on Wednesday convicted Jesse L. Matthew Jr. in a brutal 2005 sex assault after he surprised prosecutors by giving up on his defense, bringing a dramatic end to the high-profile case.
The 33-year-old Charlottesville man also faces a capital murder charge in the 2014 disappearance and death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. Police say that Matthew also has been linked forensically to the investigation into the killing of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington. No charges have been filed in that case.
The abrupt turnaround by Matthew came on the third day of the trial and soon after an expert testified that DNA found under one of the victim’s fingernails was highly likely to belong to Matthew.
Speaking softly and standing before a judge, Matthew did not admit guilt. Instead, he entered an Alford plea, conceding only that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him for the attack that left a young woman battered and bloody.
“The court finds the evidence in this case is overwhelming,” Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Schell said. Matthew was convicted of attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile and a sexual assault charge.
The convictions will bring a long prison sentence for a man police think is a serial predator who ambushes young, vulnerable women. Matthew, a former hospital staffer, could be ordered to serve three life sentences at his sentencing, set for October. As part of his plea, he will also have to register as a sex offender.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said the convictions brought some comfort to a woman who had waited a decade to see her attacker brought to court. Soon after the plea, he called the woman, who had traveled from her native India to testify against Matthew.
“She said she was deeply moved and very grateful,” Morrogh said. “She was really moved by the fact that people from so far away would work so hard for so many years to bring her justice.”
Prosecutors said that the woman, who was 26 at the time of the attack, had come to the United States to study. She spent that September Saturday at a bookstore and headed home when it got dark, stopping to buy milk on the way. The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault.
The victim told jurors on Monday that she was walking alone and just steps from her Fairfax City home when a stranger came up from behind. He dragged her into a grassy area and beat her. She said he began sexually assaulting her as she fought back.
“He said, ‘I will kill you if you scream again,’ ” the woman testified. “He said, ‘Let me do this, and I’ll let you go.’ ”
The attacker suddenly ran away, the woman said. Perhaps, prosecutors said, because the headlights of a car might have illuminated the area where she was being assaulted.
For years, the case sat unsolved, with more than two dozen suspects investigated and ruled out.
Then, in October, a Fairfax investigator met with Matthew after he had been arrested in Graham’s disappearance and death. During that meeting, the detective collected DNA from Matthew.
That evidence led to charges in Fairfax. Police said the DNA also links Matthew to the investigation into the still-unsolved slaying of Harrington, who disappeared in 2009 outside a Metallica concert in Charlottesville. She was last seen walking alone, and her remains were found months later in a remote field.
Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, attended the Fairfax trial to bear witness, she said, to justice.
“I’m kind of reeling,” Harrington said after the plea. “It feels, to me, similar to when I heard that Morgan was missing from the concert, and I said that it felt like the elevator dropped two stories. . . . Although I am happy that it’s very unlikely that this criminal will ever hurt anyone again.”
Harrington said she hopes that one day there will be a trial in her daughter’s case.
“My daughter is dead — I’m not going to put on a wedding or take care of grandchildren,” Harrington said. “My path is to find justice for Morgan.”
In the Fairfax trial, which began Monday, jurors also heard from a passerby who helped the woman and detectives. The prosecution wrapped up its case Wednesday with the testimony of a forensics expert who said that there was a “1 in greater than 7.2 billion” chance that DNA found under one of the woman’s fingernails was not Matthew’s.
Before the defense could begin its case, the trial paused and Matthew entered his plea.
A trial in Graham’s slaying has not been scheduled, but prosecutors in Albemarle County have charged Matthew with capital murder, which could carry the death penalty.
Graham, an 18-year-old from Fairfax, disappeared in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, 2014, from an outdoor mall near the U-Va. campus. Matthew was the last person seen with her. Her body was found weeks later.
Charlottesville lawyer Scott Goodman, who is familiar with both cases, said that Matthew’s Fairfax crimes likely will not come up during the trial in Albemarle unless the defendant takes the stand. If, however, Matthew is convicted in Albemarle, Goodman said, prosecutors could use the Fairfax case to argue that Matthew should receive the death penalty because he would be likely to attack again.
“That certainly could give ammo to the commonwealth to show future dangerousness,” Goodman said.
Matthew waved to his parents as he walked out of court Wednesday, flanked by sheriff’s deputies. Matthew’s mother dabbed away tears. His family and legal team declined to comment.
Next week, the victim will take the stand once more. The judge is allowing her to testify in advance of the October sentencing so she does not have to travel again from India.
“She wants to tell the judge how this has hurt her and affected her entire life even to this day,” Morrogh said.
Dana Hedgpeth and Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.