‘Alford Plea’ in Closely Watched VA Assault Case

     FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) – The man charged with killing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham entered a plea Wednesday on a separate sex-assault case after three days of trial.
     Jesse Leroy Matthew, Jr., 33, entered the Alford plea in Fairfax County Circuit Court regarding all claims that he attacked a 26-year-old international student outside her townhome in 2005.
     Containing no admission of guilt, the Alford plea acknowledges that the evidence against Matthew in this case was overwhelming.
     The charges at issue here – attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile and sexual penetration with an object – are unrelated to the fall 2014 abduction and murder of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham – crimes that have also been linked to Matthew.
     Before Graham’s body was found in Albemarle County on Oct. 18, 2014, the 18-year-old was last seen on surveillance footage in Charlottesville during a night out with friends on Sept. 12, 2014.
     In addition to his Februrary 2015 indictment for Graham’s death, Matthew remains an uncharged suspect in the 2009 murder of Morgan Harrington.
     The skeletal remains of this 20-year-old Virginia Tech student were discovered in Albemarle County in early 2010, nearly four months after Harrington disappeared from a Metallica concert in Charlottesville.
     In the attack to which Matthew pleaded on Wednesday, the victim survived.
     She traveled from India to testify earlier this week about being grabbed in 2005 while walking home one night.
     The woman said her attacker told her not to scream or he would kill her, as he brought her to a wooded area where he beat and sexually assaulted her. Matthew allegedly fled when a passerby interrupted the attack.
     His plea this morning, one-third of the way through what was supposed to be a nine-day trial, came after Fairfax County prosecutors rested their case with final witness Elizabeth Ballard, a forensic scientist and DNA expert.
     Ballard testified that the DNA found under the fingernail of Matthew’s surviving accuser could only match one person out of greater than the world’s population. Fairfax County prosecutors have presented it as a match for Matthew.
     Before seeking the recess that preceded Matthew’s plea, public defender Dawn Butorac tried to strike the commonwealth’s case by arguing that the DNA evidence was circumstantial and there was no basis for the charges against Matthew.
     Circuit Judge David Schell had denied the motion.
     In accepting Matthew’s Alford plea roughly an hour later, Schell asked Matthew a series of questions to confirm that Matthew understood his plea and the punishment he faces, and that he has given up his right to a trial by jury. Matthew confirmed that he made his Alford plea “freely, intelligently and voluntarily.”
     “The court finds that the evidence in this case is overwhelming and substantially negates the defendant’s claim of innocence,” Schell said.
     With the jury removed from the sentencing process, Matthew faces minimum sentencing guidelines of five years to life in prison for one count, and 20 years to life in prison for the other two counts, Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh said.
     Speaking to his confidence in the case, Morrogh told the media outside the courthouse that he was “a bit surprised,” but not disappointed, by the Alford plea.
     When asked about the chances of Matthew’s eventual release, Morrogh said, “I hope nil.”
     Prosecutors announced last month that they seek the death penalty for Graham’s murder.
     After Matthew entered the Alford plea, Judge Schell brought the jury back in and told them that they were no longer needed.
     “Your service is deeply appreciated,” Schell told the jury.
     Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, was among the spectators in Matthew’s Fairfax trial.
     She told reporters after court that she felt “honor-bound” to attent, supporting the victim and seeking justice.
     “We’ve got a ways to go yet,” Harrington said. “We’re a third of the way.”
     Harrington said she still wants a day in court for her daughter, but Matthew’s plea is the first step to ensuring that Matthew will have no more victims. Harrington said her purpose throughout this process has been to save the next woman.
     “Justice is an abstraction,” Harrington said. “You don’t get over it, but you get past it.”
     The counts of abduction with intent to defile and sexual penetration with an object will require Matthew to register as a sex offender. Matthew will be sentenced in Fairfax court Oct. 2 at 2 p.m.
     His accuser will give a sentencing recommendation in open court next Thursday at 2 p.m.

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