It’s been nearly 18 months since John and Sue Graham last heard from their only daughter. For Gil and Dan Harrington, it’s been more than six years. In a courtroom on Wednesday, both sets of parents finally told the man convicted of killing their daughters just how much pain he has caused.
Every seat was filled in Albemarle County Circuit Court on Wednesday when Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., 34, pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder and two counts of abduction with the intent to defile in the cases of Hannah Elizabeth Graham and Morgan Dana Harrington.
On each charge, Judge Cheryl Higgins sentenced Matthew to life in prison. Combined with the sentencing from a Fairfax judge last October, Matthew now faces seven consecutive life sentences in prison.
As predicted by law experts before the trial, the agreement may have spared Matthew’s life. By taking the deal, prosecutors agreed to drop the charge of capital murder from the Graham case, which carried the possibility of the death penalty.
Matthew’s capital defender said Wednesday that despite preparing a “vigorous, robust defense,” his client made the decision to plead guilty in the hopes of dodging the death penalty and bringing a sense of finality to the cases that have kept him behind bars since September 2014. The agreement also stipulated that Matthew cannot apply for any type of parole or release, and that the prosecution can re-indict him on the capital murder charge if he violates the terms of the agreement.
The plea deal offered plenty of advantages, according to the county’s head prosecutor: Matthew would no longer be a threat to the safety of the community; the family and friends of the victims would be spared from reliving the nightmarish crimes through trial testimony; and there would be a legal certainty as to Matthew’s fate.
“It provides the families, community and commonwealth with legal finality and clarity in cases that would have been subject to extended appellate review,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci said. “While no outcome will ever produce closure, this agreement promotes resolution.”
Even with both sides of counsel agreeing to the plea deal, Higgins listened to two pre-written victim impact statements from Dan Harrington and Sue Graham. Speaking first, Harrington spoke of his daughter Morgan, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who went missing after a Metallica concert at the University of Virginia in October 2009, only for her remains to be found the following January on a property in Albemarle.
Harrington said that for “every second of every day, for the past six and a half years” since Morgan’s disappearance, he and his wife, Gil, have been living in a “world [that] has gone grey and flat.”
By their own admission, the Graham family has been tight-lipped since their daughter Hannah, an 18-year-old UVa student, vanished from the Downtown Mall in September 2014, only for her remains to be found weeks later on a vacant property about six miles from where Harrington’s remains were found. Yet on Wednesday, Sue Graham was surefooted and strikingly acerbic as she described the loss of her daughter to the court.
“Our family is devastated … our pain is acute,” Graham told Higgins. “Matthew dumped her body like a bag of trash … to be picked over by buzzards.”
Graham added that a year after Hannah’s death, her grandfather died of a stroke, but that “[Hannah] was on his mind until the end.”
“He died of a broken heart,” she said.
After being handed four life sentences, Matthew elected not to give a final statement himself, but instead opted for capital defender Doug Ramseur to say on his behalf that he was sorry for what happened, and that “he loves his family very much.”
Speaking to a throng of reporters after the hearing, John Graham said that he and his wife had been consulted about the plea agreement prior to its public announcement two days earlier, and that it had the Grahams’ “full support.”
“Our overriding priority was that Matthew will never be able again to inflict his depravity on young women,” John Graham said. “The agreement meets this objective, which we regard as a public safety imperative: Matthew’s deeds show that he is far too dangerous ever to be allowed to be free.”
That said, the agreement “does not bring Hannah back to us, of course,” Graham said, adding that he was proud of the accomplishments Hannah had achieved in her short life “mercilessly cut short by Jesse Matthew.”
“His evil deprived the world of a great talent, but Hannah’s enduring gift to us all is that she enabled this wicked man to be apprehended and convicted,” he said. “She did change the world, but at a terrible price.”
Gil Harrington, known for her vocal presence in the media regarding her daughter’s case, also spoke after the hearing, saying the trial’s conclusion would “allow [her] family to redirect energy into healing and recovering.”
“Both are areas that we have neglected during our quest for justice for Morgan,” Harrington said. “It has been a very long journey to this point.”
She further thanked the law enforcement officers and prosecutors who have worked toward solving Morgan’s case for so many years, and having created the nonprofit organization Help Save the Next Girl in the wake of Morgan’s death, Harrington used the moment to ask communities to “know your neighbors, [and] look out for one another.”
“Together we can help save the next girl,” Harrington said before using her hands to sign 2-4-1, a series of numbers she has often used to denote her enduring love for Morgan.
While Matthew’s family members quickly vacated the court square after the hearing, the Rev. Louie Carr spoke on behalf of the Matthew family, telling reporters that “it is difficult for us to understand how a gentle soul transformed into this type of individual.”
“We want to express to the Harrington family and Graham family our sorrow over what our family member, Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., chose to do to your daughters,” Carr said. “We know there is nothing that we can do to erase what Jesse has done, but we pray that you will find in your hearts to someday forgive our loved one for the act committed against your loved ones.”
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing, authorities released two statements of facts related to each of the cases, detailing what evidence the prosecution had planned to bring to each of the trials, including DNA matches and testimony from several witnesses who put Matthew with both Harrington and Graham on the nights of their disappearances. The bottom of each statement includes signatures from the prosecution, Ramseur and Matthew himself.
Matthew already was handed three life sentences last year after being convicted of a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax, to which he was connected by DNA evidence recovered from the Harrington and Graham cases. Charged with sexual assault, abduction and attempted capital murder in that case, Matthew signed Alford pleas, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict him.
Matthew’s pleas in the Harrington and Graham cases were not Alford pleas. When asked by Higgins on Wednesday if he had in fact committed the crimes alleged against him, Matthew simply replied, “yes, ma’am.”