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Prosecutor in Jesse Matthew murder trials voted out of office

Albemarle Co. prosecutor Denise Lunsford, who indicted Jesse Matthew for the murders of Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington, has lost her bid for re-election. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein, file)

WASHINGTON — Denise Lunsford, whose office secured murder indictments against Jesse Matthew in the deaths of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, has lost her bid for reelection to Robert Tracci, a former federal prosecutor.

In her first interview after Lunsford’s defeat, Gil Harrington, who met Lunsford the 2010 night Harrington’s daughter’s body was recovered, tells WTOP she is just starting to process the fact that the prosecutor who charged Matthew won’t be at the prosecution table during his trials.

“We’ve had a very cordial, good, warm relationship with Denise,” says Harrington. “I anticipate we will have the same with Robert Tracci because we have heard good things about him.”

Yet, Harrington says with so much time and effort invested in Matthew’s prosecution, she feels a tinge of uncertainty.

“Any reluctance that we would have about the change is almost the knee-jerk reaction that all of us, as human beings, have to change,” says Harrington.

Matthew is charged with capital murder in the 2014 death of Graham, and first degree murder in the 2009 death of Harrington. He could face the death penalty in the Graham case, which is scheduled to begin July 5, 2016. Matthew faces life in prison for Harrington’s death, in a trial set for October 24, 2016.

Harrington, who founded the advocacy group Help Save the Next Girl with her husband, Dan, after their daughter’s murder, hopes the trial won’t be pushed back.

“Of course the delay piece does rise and loom in a bad way for us, because we have been in this for six years, but that really is a false idea,” acknowledges Harrington.

“There is some magical thinking on my part that I want this to be over, but I realize it will never be over for us,” she says. “Even after a trial is finished, it’s still not over.”

Lunsford, a Democrat, lost to Republican Tracci by just over 500 votes, according to the Virginia Department of Elections count.

Reached by WTOP, Lunsford declined immediate comment on the transition and future prosecution of Matthew’s cases.

Matthew’s capital defender, Douglas Ramseur declined to comment on Lunsford or Tracci.

Tracci will inherit the highly-publicized Graham and Harrington cases. “I will attach the same level of priority of that case that I do others, which is examine each case and make sure that justice is done on the behalf of the community and for families,” Tracci told Charlottesville television station NBC 29.

Harrington says she has never met or spoken with Tracci. She says she last spoke with Lunsford after Matthew’s Sept. 30 hearing in Albemarle County Circuit Court.

“I have had reassurances from (Lunsford’s) office that whatever transpired, that we would be treated well, and there would be a robust prosecution,” says Harrington.

In the weeks leading to Tuesday’s voting, Lunsford said Tracci lacked experience prosecuting trials in state courts, where murder cases are generally tried.

Tracci’s resume from 2008-2012 includes prosecuting federal cases in the Charlottesville area related to crimes against children, computer crimes, corruption, and murder for hire. Yet, Tracci has acknowledged he hasn’t been lead prosecutor in any felony cases.

Charlottesville attorney David Heilberg, who is not involved in the Matthew cases, believes Tracci will be less likely than Lunsford to seek the death penalty.

“I will be surprised if Mr. Tracci…pushes for the death penalty,” says Heilberg, who was involved in aspects of convicted and executed Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad’s defense.

“Albemarle is not a community that overwhelmingly craves a death penalty, though individual opinions might differ,” says Heilberg in an email. “The cost to taxpayers seems wasteful where Matthew most likely will agree to multiple life sentences without an expensive capital trial or years of appeals.”

Matthew has already been sentenced to three life sentences in Fairfax County, for a 2005 rape.

Fairfax County prosecutor Ray Morrogh, who successfully prosecuted Matthew for a brutal attack on a then-26-year-old woman,  says he doesn’t expect changing prosecutors will affect the outcome of the upcoming Albemarle trials.

Morrogh, Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert, and Arlington County prosecutor Theo Stamos had all endorsed Lunsford in her re-election campaign.

“I believe there is plenty of time for the new prosecutor to get up to speed on the cases,” Morrogh tells WTOP. “I’m certain that will be a priority for his office.”

With the newly-introduced uncertainty Harrington has a coping mechanism:  “I do remind myself that Jesse Matthew is not going anywhere, anytime. He’ll never be able to hurt anybody again, and that is paramount. That is paramount, and that was our goal all along.”

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