New evidence leads to capital murder charge in U.Va. case

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Posted: May 06, 2015 4:07 AM
New evidence leads to capital murder charge in U.Va. case

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A prosecutor has obtained a capital murder indictment against the man accused of the abduction and killing a University of Virginia student, saying she plans to seek the death penalty.

Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford said Tuesday in announcing the new murder charge that she received "compelling evidence" from the state crime lab in February concerning the 2014 death of 18-year-old Hannah Graham. But the prosecutor declined to elaborate on the new forensic evidence in the case against Jesse Matthew Jr.

Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins scheduled a hearing for June 25 to set the date for a trial.

Lunsford said that while the new evidence was crucial, many factors go into pursuing a death penalty case, including the nature of the crime and the defendant's history.

Matthew, 33, is a suspect in another college student's death, faces trial next month for sexual assault in northern Virginia and was accused of raping students at Liberty University and Christopher Newport University in 2002 and 2003. Those two cases were dropped when the women declined to press charges.

"If I didn't believe this case worthy of a capital charge, if I didn't believe that Mr. Matthew or someone wouldn't be appropriate for this ultimate penalty, we wouldn't be standing here having this conversation," Lunsford told reporters.

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. The jury could still convict him of the lesser murder charge, Lunsford said.

Shackled and handcuffed, Matthew showed no expression at Tuesday's hearing.

Graham, 18, disappeared last September after a night out with friends in Charlottesville, where the school is located. Her remains were found weeks later in woods several 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 before crossing a seven-block strip of bars, restaurants and shops. Another video captured her leaving a restaurant with Matthew, his 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 her remains were found about six miles from the field where another missing college student, Morgan Harrington, was found nearly five years earlier. The 20-year-old Virginia Tech student disappeared while attending a Metallica 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 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 hearing in the Graham case. "You want to ask why, but there's no answer for that."

Graham's parents did not attend Tuesday's hearings. Graham, a sophomore, was born in England and moved to Virginia when she was 5. She was a member of U.Va.'s ski and snowboard team and, according to her parents, was a French culture enthusiast.

On Tuesday, Judge Higgins appointed regional capital defender Doug Ramseur and Charlottesville attorney Michael Hemenway to replace lawyers who represented Matthew on the first-degree murder charge. Ramseur declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing.