BY LARRY O’DELL
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Nearly four months after his arrest in the disappearance of a missing University of Virginia student, Jesse Matthew Jr. has been indicted on a murder count in the case – but he won’t face the death penalty and still has not been charged in the death of another student.
Matthew, 33, is charged with first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile, Albemarle County prosecutor Denise Lunsford said Tuesday. Hannah Graham, 18, disappeared in September and was found dead in the county a few weeks later.
Lunsford declined to explain why Matthew was not charged with capital murder, which would have carried a possible death sentence. The abduction and first-degree murder charges are punishable by up to life in prison.
“A great deal of serious thought went into this determination, including the impact on the community, the Grahams and the need to provide Mr. Matthew with a fair trial,” Lunsford said.
Darrel Puckett, the chief prosecutor in Appomattox County, said one of the many factors typically considered in weighing murder charges is Virginia’s automatic appeal in death penalty cases. In the 2010 case of a mentally deranged man who killed eight people, Puckett declined to seek the death penalty in part because of the likelihood that a conviction would be reversed.
Puckett, who secured three life sentences in the case, said a prosecutor also would be expected to seek advice from a broad spectrum of people before deciding between first-degree and capital murder. The viewpoint of the victim’s family is just one of many considerations, he said.
“You can’t allow emotion to rule,” Puckett said. “You have to do what’s in the best interests of everyone involved.”
Lunsford said Graham’s parents were told about the charge, but she did not describe their reaction and she implored reporters to respect their privacy.
Craig Maniglia, Hannah Graham’s high school softball coach and a longtime friend of the family, said he is hopeful a conviction will bring closure.
“Once convicted, my hope is that Mr. Matthew will not go free and be in a position to harm innocent young women ever again,” Maniglia said.
Police have said forensic evidence also links Matthew to the 2009 disappearance and death of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, whose body also was found in the county. Lunsford said “there are no pending charges” against Matthew in the Harrington case. She did not elaborate.
Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, said she has no problem with the decision not to seek the death penalty in Graham’s case and would feel the same if he is ever charged in her daughter’s death.
“I don’t hate Jesse Matthew,” she said in a telephone interview. “I just want him stopped. He’s not going to be free to hurt anyone else. That’s all I need.”
Matthew’s attorney, Jim Camblos, declined to comment on the murder charge.
Graham vanished after a night out with friends Sept. 12. She was last seen in surveillance video leaving a Charlottesville restaurant with Matthew.
After a monthlong search involving thousands of volunteers and police, Graham’s remains were found Oct. 18 roughly six miles from the hayfield where Harrington’s body was found four years earlier.
Matthew’s arrest by Charlottesville police for abduction with intent to defile empowered police to swab his cheek for a DNA sample that connected him to a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax County, according to authorities. The DNA evidence in the Fairfax sexual assault, in turn, linked Matthew to the Harrington case.
Charlottesville’s prosecutor filed a motion Tuesday to halt prosecution of the abduction charge there in light of the same charge being filed in Albemarle County.
Matthew previously had been accused of raping students at Liberty University and Christopher Newport University in 2002 and 2003. The cases were dropped after the women declined to press charges.
Matthew’s first court appearance on the new charges in the Graham case, which also include two counts of reckless driving, is scheduled for Feb. 18. Lunsford said Matthew will appear by video link.
Matthew’s trial in the sexual assault case in Fairfax County, originally set for March 9, was postponed last week after his public defender said she needed more time to analyze DNA evidence. A new trial date will be set at a hearing Friday.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Barakat in McLean, Va., contributed to this report.