Ten years ago, a young woman in Fairfax City was dragged into a park, viciously assaulted and nearly choked to death before her assailant ran off.
In the years that followed, two other young women suddenly disappeared in Virginia. Both were missing for weeks and eventually found dead, their bodies left in rural areas not far apart.
Police believe that one man has links to all three cases: Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 33, of Charlottesville. He has been charged in two of the cases and is scheduled to go to trial in the Fairfax City assault case this week. Authorities have said his DNA links him to the third case.
Here’s how the three cases are intertwined:
On Sept. 24, 2005, a woman was walking home from a grocery store in Fairfax City when she was grabbed from behind. The 26-year-old victim fought back while she was dragged to a nearby park where she was sexually assaulted. The assailant attempted to choke her to death before a passerby spooked him and he ran off.
Matthew was charged last October with attempted capital murder and felony counts of abduction with intent to defile and sexual penetration with an object. On June 10, Matthew entered an Alford plea to all counts, which means that he did not admit guilt but conceded prosecutors had enough evidence to win convictions. Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Schell convicted Matthew of the three counts.
“The court finds the evidence in this case is overwhelming,” Schell said.
During the trial, prosecutors called expert witnesses who testified that DNA found under the victim’s fingernail was a clear match to Matthew’s. Scientists wrote in court filings that there is only a “1 in greater than 7.2 billion” chance the DNA was not his.
Matthew faces the possibility of three life terms when he is sentenced by Shell. Sentencing is set for October.
On Oct. 17, 2009, Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington was seen leaving a Metallica concert in Charlottesville, then went missing. Her body was found 101 days later in a field about 10 miles south of the city. Police said last September that Matthew’s DNA was found on evidence collected during the Harrington investigation. No charges have been filed in Harrington’s disappearance or death. On June 10, Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, said that she met with Albemarle County prosecutors to discuss the future of her daughter’s case.
“My path is to find justice for Morgan,” Gil Harrington said.
On Sept. 13, 2014, University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham was seen on video surveillance cameras walking with Matthew in downtown Charlottesville. Police said she disappeared shortly afterward and was never seen alive again. Her body was discovered six weeks later on an abandoned property about a dozen miles from campus, not far from where Harrington’s body was found. After a nationwide manhunt, Matthew was arrested in September on a beach near Galveston, Tex. After Matthew was arrested, police said they were able to determine that his DNA connected him to the Harrington case.
Before Graham’s body was found, Matthew was charged with abduction with intent to defile, meaning that police believed he planned to sexually assault her. Matthew was later charged with first-degree murder in Graham’s death. Albemarle County prosecutor Denise Lunsford later upgraded the charges against Matthew in light of new evidence, and, if convicted, he now could face the death penalty. He is expected to stand trial in the Graham case later this year.
Matthew’s conviction in the Fairfax case likely will not affect trial proceedings in the Graham case unless he decides to take the stand to defend himself. In that situation, the prosecution can make him tell the court that he has three prior convictions.
If Matthew is found guilty of capital murder in Graham’s case, the jury will be allowed to consider his Fairfax County convictions and the nature of the crimes during sentencing in order to decide if he should be given the death penalty.