Lawyer that kept Jesse Matthew off death row, now defends suspect in shooting of U.Va. football players

Students and community members gather for a candlelight vigil after a shooting that left three students dead the night before at the University of Virginia, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Charlottesville, Va. (Shaban Athuman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)(AP/Shaban Athuman)

The defense attorney who kept Jesse Leroy Matthew off death row for the Charlottesville, Virginia, murders of Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington will be at the defense table when a former University of Virginia student goes on trial for killing three college football players in 2022.

Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. is charged with three counts of aggravated murder and will go on trial in January 2025.

“Originally he’d been charged with several counts of second-degree murder, in addition to some weapons counts, and the Commonwealth’s attorney made the decision to increase those charges,” said defense attorney Doug Ramseur, in an exclusive interview with WTOP.

Jones was a U.Va. student in November 2022 and a former member of the football team when police say he opened fire on a charter bus that had brought back students from a field trip to Washington, D.C.

Football players Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler were killed, while a fourth member of the team, Mike Hollins, and another student were wounded.

In 2016, in his former position of chief capital defender in Central Virginia, Ramseur represented Jesse Matthew, who was charged with the 2014 death of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham and the 2009 death of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who was killed after attending a concert in Charlottesville.

“Mr. Matthew concluded all the cases that he had in Albemarle [County], with an agreement to take life sentences for first-degree murder,” Ramseur said. Matthew and Jones’ charges were filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court, which is located in downtown Charlottesville.

“Since then he’s been imprisoned at Red Onion State Prison. They have been keeping him in pretty isolated quarters out there, segregation for the whole time that’s he’s been there, except for a brief time when he was moved out, because he was being treated for some health issues,” he said.

In 2019, Matthew was transferred from the “supermax” prison to Sussex I State Prison to receive cancer treatment. He is now back at Red Onion.

‘Fortunately we abolished the death penalty in Virginia’

In early 2016, Matthew’s plea agreement with then-prosecutor Robert Tracci to accept first-degree murder convictions in Graham’s and Harrington’s killings took the death penalty off the table, since Matthew faced a capital murder count in Graham’s death.

“Fortunately, we abolished the death penalty in Virginia, almost three years ago now,” Ramseur said.

Jones is facing Virginia’s most serious murder charge — aggravated murder.

“It has the same elements of what used to be death penalty offenses in Virginia,” Ramseur said. If his client were to be convicted, “the only possible sentence is life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Ramseur was asked if his representation of Matthew in the high-profile Graham and Harrington murders might affect potential jurors in the Jones case; he acknowledged Charlottesville residents don’t live in a vacuum.

“Everyone might have seen something, or been affected by it, the question is, can they decide it based on what’s there in the courtroom,” Ramseur said. “Obviously, there were concerns about that in the Jesse Matthew case, because there was so much coverage about it, whether anyone could not have had a feeling or opinion about it.”

However, with the plea agreement, “we never got to that place there.”

Despite Virginia’s abolishment of the death penalty in state cases, Ramseur still represents clients facing the death penalty in federal courts in Virginia and across the country.

Since murder is considered a state crime, federal cases that are death-penalty-eligible, “murder would not even be in the charge,” Ramseur said. “Sometimes terrorism cases, drug conspiracy cases, even robbery cases, that result in the death of someone else.”

Ramseur’s goal is the same, whether he’s arguing in Virginia or federal courtrooms.

“The prosecutor’s trying to tell the story of the worst day of my client’s life. I’m trying to tell the story of every other day, and put that day in context,” Ramseur said.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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