Capital murder charge could spur Jesse Matthew plea deal

WASHINGTON — The new capital murder indictment against the man charged with kidnapping and killing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham could put extra pressure on Jesse Matthew to enter a plea deal.

“That often happens, with that much at stake,” says Charlottesville lawyer David Heilberg, who is not involved in the Matthew case.

“The goal of a capital defense is to get a life sentence, generally speaking,” says Heilberg. “It is very rare that they are defended on their merits, based on a lack of proof.”

On Tuesday, Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford announced a grand jury in April had issued a superseding indictment for capital murder, alleging first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile. The indictment was served upon Matthew Tuesday morning, before his afternoon court appearance.

The new capital charge, which Lunsford says became a possibility after receiving analysis from the forensic lab, makes Matthew eligible for the capital punishment.

“If this matter goes to trial, the Commonwealth will seek the death penalty,” said Lunsford, speaking to reporters outside the Circuit Court.

In February, Matthew had been indicted on charges of first degree murder, abduction with intent to defile and two reckless driving counts. At the time, Lunsford said she had consulted the parents of Hannah Graham before lodging the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of life without parole.

On Tuesday, asked if she spoke with the Graham family before seeking the capital indictment, Lunsford declined to comment.

“If nothing else, the charge was amended to increase the leverage on the defense,” says Heilberg, who was part of the defense team for John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper who was executed in Virginia in 2009.

Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins appointed regional capital defender Doug Ramseur and Charlottesville attorney Michael Hemenway to replace the attorneys who represented Matthew on the first-degree murder charge. Ramseur had no comment after Tuesday’s hearing.

Lunsford suggested she would be open to a plea deal.

“There’s been no discussions along those lines, but there’s always that possibility, and the Commonwealth is not taking anything off the table at this point,” Lunsford told reporters.

Heilberg says there is incentive for the prosecution to reach a plea agreement in this case.

“It is a huge expense to go all the way through a capital murder trial, with both the adjudication and the penalty phase,” says Heilberg.

Lunsford says she filed a previous capital case, which was resolved as a noncapital case, and never defended a capital case while she was a defense attorney.

If the case were to go to trial, jurors would have the opportunity to consider finding Matthew guilty of capital murder, first degree murder or find him not guilty.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up