WASHINGTON — An unexpected plea by Jesse Matthew on Wednesday in a 2005 sexual assault trial will most likely impact his pending murder trial in the death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. What is unclear is what role the result might play.
After the prosecution rested its case Wednesday, Matthew entered Alford pleas for the three charges against him.
With an Alford plea, Matthew doesn’t admit his guilt, but does admit there is enough evidence in the case against him to be convicted.
Charlottesville attorney David Heilberg, who is not involved with either case, said a reason for the pleas could be “the faint hope of a sentence less than life without parole.” Matthew will be sentenced in October.
If Matthew receives a long prison sentence in Fairfax County, the defense team could use the sentence as a reason for the prosecution to take the death penalty off the table in the Graham murder.
“It may take some of the pressure or heat off Albemarle prosecutors to really go after a death sentence,” Heilberg said.
With an Alford plea, Matthew cannot challenge the conviction or sentence in the Fairfax County case. Also, Virginia doesn’t have parole, which means Matthew will serve the entire sentence.
Felony convictions could make the job of keeping Matthew off death row even harder for his defense team in the Graham case.
Heilberg said if Matthew chooses to testify in his own defense during the trial, the fact that he has three felony convictions could become known to the jury. The jurors would then decide if that should affect his credibility. Details about the Fairfax attack wouldn’t come out until sentencing, if prosecutors push for a death sentence.
“They can almost re-present the Fairfax case to justify the death penalty,” Heilberg said.
It is unknown if Matthew’s defense would urge him to take Alford pleas if the Hannah Graham murder case goes to trial, but if he does, he would most likely be sentenced to life without parole.