FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — Jesse Matthew Jr., charged with the murders of college students Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington, was sentenced Friday to life in prison for a sexual assault on a woman a decade ago in northern Virginia.
Matthew, 33, of Charlottesville, Virginia, was officially sentenced to three consecutive life terms in Fairfax, a suburb of the nation’s capital, for attempted capital murder, abduction, and sexual assault of a woman in 2005.
DNA evidence collected from Matthew during last year’s investigation of Graham’s disappearance linked him to the Fairfax case.
Matthew’s family had asked the judge for leniency in letters to the court, and a former girlfriend, identifying herself only as “Diana,” wrote a letter onMatthew’s behalf saying he was raped as a child.
But Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh, who argued for the life sentence, was unmoved by the claim that Matthew himself may have been a victim of sexual assault. He told Judge David Schell he was suspicious about the truth of the claim and indifferent to its significance.
“If indeed this man was ever raped, then of all people it is he who should be loath to rape someone else,” Morrogh said.
He called Matthew a “modern day Jekyll and Hyde” who projected an image as a gentle giant to friends and family while hiding his life as a violent sexual predator.
“Killing her with his bare hands would have been the ultimate rush for him,” Morrogh said, crediting a bystander for saving the victim’s life by intervening and prompting Matthew to flee.
Sentencing guidelines broadly called for a term of anywhere from nine to 44 years, lawyers said. Public defender Robert Frank said the picture of Matthew— a state champion wrestler who received a football scholarship to Liberty University — as a gentle giant is the one that he and the defense team had come to know over the last year.
He urged the judge not to consider “what might have happened in Charlottesville” — a reference to the deaths of Graham and Harrington, which have received national attention — in sentencing Matthew for the assault.
Schell said little in handing down the maximum sentence, calling the crime a “vicious and brutal attack.”
Morrogh told reporters after Friday’s hearing that the life sentence was appropriate, given the viciousness of the crime, and said he was certain the sentence reflected the judge’s feelings about the Fairfax assault only, and that he did not take pending charges in the Graham and Harrington deaths into account.
Morrogh said that under Virginia law, Matthew would be eligible for geriatric release at age 60 — 27 years from now — regardless of the life sentences.
As the sentence was read, Matthew’s mother, Debra Carr, began screaming “No!” and sobbed. She refused to move as deputies tried to take her from the courtroom.
Matthew said nothing and left the courtroom quietly under escort, his head hanging low. He said only “No, sir” when asked if he had anything to say before the judge imposed sentence.
The woman who was attacked now lives in India and was forced to return to Virginia to testify against him. She testified her attacker grabbed her just steps from her townhouse and carried her into a darkened area, where he ripped off her clothes and molested her. She fought and scratched him, yielding the crucial DNA evidence, until her attacker ran off when the bystander approached.
After prosecutors presented their case at trial earlier this year, Matthew cut proceedings to a halt by entering an Alford plea, a form of a guilty plea in which he does not admit wrongdoing but acknowledges that prosecutors have sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Morrogh said Matthew’s unwillingness to accept responsibility, combined with his willingness to make his victim relive the ordeal by testifying in a public trial, is emblematic of his selfishness.
“He seeks mercy but is himself merciless. He seeks empathy, but he is heartless,” Morrogh said.
Hannah Graham’s parents, and Morgan Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, attended Friday’s sentencing. Both Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington were college students who were found dead in the Charlottesville area after having gone missing.
Last year’s disappearance of Graham, a University of Virginia student, prompted a national search for Matthew after police publicly identified him as the person last seen with Graham. Matthew was eventually arrested in Texas and charged with Graham’s murder. Morgan Harrington’s death had gone unsolved since 2009, when the Virginia Tech student disappeared after attending a Metallica concert in Charlottesville.
Matthew faces a possible death sentence in the Graham case scheduled for trial next year. Morrogh said he hopes the Fairfax conviction will help prosecutors there — they will be able to point to the conviction in arguing for a death sentence.
Gil Harrington said after Friday’s hearing she was pleased with the sentence handed down but took no joy from it.
“There are no winners here today. There’s loss all around,” she said.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.