Analysis: Behind Jesse Matthew’s Alford plea in Fairfax County

WASHINGTON – Jesse Matthew realized he had no other choice.

Matthew is charged with capital murder for the 2014 death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, and police say Matthew is linked by DNA to the 2009 death of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington.

Wednesday, in Fairfax County Circuit Court, Matthew entered an Alford Plea for the 2005 sexual attack of a then-26-year-old woman who was attacked while she walked home with two bags of groceries from Giant.

Under an Alford Plea, a defendant maintains his innocence, yet acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Despite not acknowledging he committed the crime, Matthew now has three guilty convictions, and faces up to three life sentences when he’s sentenced by Judge David Schell in October.

What took so long?

Detectives for Fairfax City, and county prosecutors had no clue that Matthew was involved in the 2005 attack until he was in custody in connection to Graham’s disappearance.

DNA that was found under the victim’s fingernails belonged to Matthew, because she scratched his face as he molested her.

Forensic analysis showed the likelihood of the DNA found under the woman’s nails belonging to anyone other than Matthew was in the quintillions and septillions, which includes 24 zeroes.

DNA evidence is tough to defeat.

So, why didn’t Matthew plead guilty before trial?

Clearly, someone on his defense team thought it was worth a roll of the dice.

Matthew was represented by public defenders Dawn Butorac and Robert Frank, and Jim Camblos, who began representing Matthew when police were still looking for him after Graham disappeared.

Maybe the victim in the case wouldn’t show up from India, or maybe she would fold under pressure on the stand sitting across the room from the man who beat her, threatened to kill her, and stuck his finger inside her vagina.

That didn’t happen.

The woman took the stand, and recounted both the pain of the 2005 attack, as well as her pain in 2015 having her family learn that Matthew also attempted to rape her.

If Jesse Matthew pleaded guilty during months leading up to the trial, he could have spared his victim the horror of having to recount what happened to her 10 years ago. He could have spared her the trip from India, and he could have spared her from having everyone in the courtroom know her name and what she was subjected to.

Maybe the idea of a 33 year old man spending the rest of his life in prison was enough to make one member of the defense team think it was worth taking a risk at trial. Maybe someone was afraid the judge would give Matthew three life sentences.

Jesse Matthew knew from the start that a plea was an option in this Fairfax County case.

In his first court appearance, by video conference from jail in Albemarle County, Camblos told the judge he wanted a mental health evaluation for Matthew.

Typically, a mental health evaluation opens avenues for a plea deal. The mental health evaluation on Jesse Matthew hasn’t been done, to this day.

Instead, the judge appointed two local public defenders, to make preparing Matthew’s defense between two jail cells less of a logistical nightmare.

So, the prosecution made its case at trial, with a convincing victim, and rock-solid scientific evidence.

And after the prosecution rested, Jesse Matthew realized he’d run out of time.

Matthew told the judge he made the decision to enter an Alford Plea to avoid having a jury find him guilty.

The judge said the evidence against Matthew was “overwhelming” and accepted the plea.

Prosecutor Ray Morrogh made it clear in court and in a post-conviction news conference that this was not a plea deal, and that no agreement had been made that would preclude him from seeking three life sentences.

In October, Judge Schell will sentence Jesse Matthew, but next  week the victim will give her victim impact statement in open court, with Matthew present, before she flies back to India.

At some point, in some way, Jesse Matthew will have another chance to apologize to the woman. Perhaps this time he’ll do the right thing, at the right time.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein has covered all aspects of cases related to the disappearance of Hannah Graham. He was in the courtroom during Matthew’s Fairfax County trial.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

© 2015 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up