CHARLOTTESVILLE — A man from the Charlottesville area has been charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, officials in Albemarle County announced Tuesday.
Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 33, was previously charged with Graham’s abduction after authorities said he was the last person seen with the 18-year-old from Fairfax County before she disappeared from Charlottesville in September. Her body was found in a wooded area about 10 miles from campus weeks later.
Matthew also has been charged with abduction with intent to defile, indicating that police believe he intended to sexually assault Graham. Matthew faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford declined to comment on what evidence authorities have to support the murder charge or other details of the case.
Lunsford said she chose not to seek a capital murder charge, which carries a potential death sentence. Virginia law allows it in homicide cases that allegedly involve an abduction or sexual assault. Lunsford would not discuss her reasoning but said the decision came after consulting with Graham’s family and weighing the impact on the community.
“The charges that the jury will hear are the charges that the prosecutor feels comfortable to bring,” Lunsford said.
Matthew’s attorney, James L. Camblos III, who previously served as the Albemarle County prosecutor, declined to comment on the charges. Camblos said that Matthew will be transported to Charlottesville next week and is scheduled to appear in court Feb. 18 through a video feed from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
The murder charge came more than three months after Graham’s body was found on an abandoned property in Albemarle. A state medical examiner ruled her death a homicide.
Vaughan C. Jones, a Richmond defense lawyer and a former prosecutor in Virginia, said a number of factors could have played into Lunsford’s decision not to pursue a capital case.
“One of them often is the strength of the case,” Jones said. “In a capital murder case, there is so much more scrutiny.”
Capital convictions are typically reviewed by state and federal appellate courts, providing more chances for a verdict to be overturned.
Jones said the lag between the initial abduction charge against Matthew and the murder charge did not surprise him. Prosecutors, he said, would want to be meticulous to avoid any missteps that might complicate the prosecution.
Matthew also is facing charges related to a sexual assault from nearly a decade ago. He is being held in the Fairfax County jail awaiting trial on charges that he attacked and attempted to kill a woman in Fairfax City in 2005; authorities have said that they found Matthew’s DNA under one of the victim’s fingernails. That trial was to begin March 9, but a judge delayed it last week.
Graham, a U-Va. sophomore who graduated from West Potomac High School, disappeared after a night out in Charlottesville on Sept. 12. Police said she had been socializing with friends earlier in the night but left the group with plans to meet up with them later. She never showed up and apparently became disoriented while walking through Charlottesville.
Police said witnesses saw Matthew with his arm around Graham at a downtown mall about 1 a.m. Sept. 13, and surveillance video recordings show the two walking together. Witnesses also saw the two together outside a restaurant, the last reported sighting of Graham.
The tragedy stunned many members of the university community, both because her fate was unknown for so long and because it showed that bad things could befall almost anyone at any time. Photos of the 5-foot-11, auburn-haired Graham — an avid skier who wanted to pursue a career in global public health — were plastered around campus and spread over the Internet, becoming a news-show staple.
Charlottesville police briefly questioned Matthew after Graham’s disappearance, but they did not have enough evidence to hold him, and he fled. Matthew was arrested on a beach near Galveston, Tex., in late September. He was initially charged with abduction in Charlottesville, but that case has now been transferred to Albemarle County.
In October, Fairfax County prosecutors filed charges of attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile and sexual penetration with an object in connection with the 2005 Fairfax City attack.
In that case, Matthew is accused of grabbing a woman as she walked home from a grocery store and carrying her to a nearby park on Sept. 24, 2005. A Fairfax County judge is expected to set a new date in that trial on Friday.
Authorities also have said that forensic evidence links the Fairfax assault to the disappearance of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, who vanished after leaving a Metallica concert on the U-Va. campus in 2009. Her body was discovered months later on a farm outside Charlottesville.
Lunsford said authorities have been in contact with Harrington’s family but have not filed charges, saying the Graham case “was ready to go first.”
Gil Harrington, Morgan’s mother, said the murder charge against Matthew brings her a sense of relief.
“I know he’s not going to be free — ever,” Harrington said. “A driving motivator since Morgan was killed is trying to save the next girl.”
Several of Graham’s friends declined to comment about the charges Tuesday, and her family did not respond to a request for comment. A U-Va. spokesman also declined to comment.
After Graham’s death, U-Va. embarked on a review of what more it should do to protect students. It reexamined campus lighting, expanded its late-night transportation service and took other steps to improve safety. The university also announced the opening of a police substation at the Corner, a popular student hangout that includes cafes and restaurants.
On the U-Va. campus, the developments in the Graham case brought back memories of what was a tumultuous fall semester. For some, the indictments were a reassuring sign.
“I have faith justice will prevail,” said Annika Schunn, 21, a junior from Midlothian, Va. The case, she said, “definitely hit really close to home and was a painful experience.” She said the slaying was a reminder for students that “we need to be aware and looking out for each other.”
Jouvenal reported from Washington. T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.