Exclusive: Lawyer who kept Jesse Matthew, others off Va. death row stepping down

For the past 17 years, every time Doug Ramseur sat at the defense table in a Virginia courtroom, the person he was representing could be put to death — including Charlottesville murderer Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr.

Ramseur is opening his own practice in Richmond and stepping down from his position as Capital Defender in central Virginia, where he represented poor defendants charged with violent crimes, including murder, with the goal of keeping his clients off death row.

“Every case was literally a matter of life or death for my clients,” Ramseur told WTOP. “Someone’s life was at stake, each and every time.”

According to the Code of Virginia, whenever prosecutors charge a defendant with a capital crime, which could be eligible for the death penalty, the court must appoint two lawyers to represent the defendant if that defendant is indigent. One of those lawyers must come from a regional Capital Defender office.

With Ramseur as his primary attorney, Matthew avoided the possibility of execution by pleading guilty to first-degree murder — rather than capital murder — in the 2014 death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

Matthew also pleaded guilty in the 2009 murder of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who was killed after attending a concert in Charlottesville.

“I had real concerns going forward with the case, because I wasn’t sure whether there was any place Mr. Matthew could get an unbiased jury, who could look at the evidence with fresh eyes,” Ramseur said.

With the disappearance and murder of two young students, Ramseur was aware of the public’s demand for justice.

“I wasn’t sure how we would handle this onslaught of people who had, it seemed, already decided that he was guilty and responsible for this,” Ramseur said. “I was really glad that we were able to work out a resolution that I think helped a lot of people move on.”

Asked how he felt representing Matthew and other defendants, in cases involving violent crimes, Ramseur said a strong defense helps ensure justice.

“Defense attorneys are not someone who’s out there advocating for criminals to be set free to run amok,” said Ramseur. “But what is important is that we not allow people to be convicted when the government can’t sustain the evidence to prove that a person did that [crime].”

“If they want to seek the execution of that person, they need to make sure the evidence is strong enough to convince 12 members of our community beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

In 17 years as lead counsel for about 40 capital defendants, Ramseur said not a single defendant of his was sent to death row.

Ramseur said fewer people are being sentenced to death in the commonwealth.

“Virginia’s death row is down to two guys right now,” Ramseur said. “Even though Virginia historically is the second-most active states in executions.”

Ramseur is opening his new practice, The Ram Law Firm, in Richmond.

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.

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