The high profile sexual assault trial of alleged serial predator Jesse Matthew Jr came to a surprising end this week when the defendant withdrew his defense and was subsequently convicted by a Virginia judge. In the face of expert witness testimony linking his DNA to the scene of the attack, Matthew elected to give up on his case, leading to a conviction that could result in consecutive life sentences.
Jesse Matthew Jr. Linked Forensically to Sexual Assaults and Murders
On a late evening in September of 2005, a 26-year-old woman studying in America from overseas was walking home in the dark when she was attacked from behind by an unknown stranger and dragged into a dark grassy area. Once off the path, he began sexually assaulting her, threatening to kill her if she screamed before suddenly running away, possibly due to approaching headlights that temporarily illuminated the area where the attack took place.
For nearly a decade the case remained unsolved without any leads on the identity of the attacker, but the situation changed late last year when investigators in Fairfax, VA met with Matthew while looking into the 2014 disappearance and death of University of Virginia student, Hannah Graham. According to police and prosecutors, Matthew Jr. left traces of DNA on Graham’s body that matched the 2005 victim. Matthew has also been linked forensically to the body of a murdered Virginia Tech student, Morgan Harrington.
During his trial for the 2005 sexual assault, forensic experts connected the DNA discovered in subsequent investigations to the victim, causing Matthew to enter an Alford plea and drop his defense case. An Alford plea means the defendant does not admit guilt, but concedes that the prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him and gives up on his defense strategy. As a result of the plea, Judge David Schell found sufficient evidence to convict Matthew of attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile, and sexual assault.
Forensic Expert Witnesses Link DNA from Assault to Jesse Matthew
The prosecution began its case with testimony from witnesses to the scene of the attack and the victim herself, however, were unable to get a positive visual ID on Matthew. In order to connect the defendant to the crime, prosecutors relied on testimony from an expert witness who was able to identify DNA under the victim’s fingernails as a likely match to Matthew’s DNA collected during investigation into his alleged subsequent assaults. According to Dr. Elizabeth Ballard, a forensic scientist who is an expert in DNA analysis, the chance of the DNA collected from the victim not belonging to Matthew is less than one in 7.2 billion.
In an effort to argue against the DNA evidence discussed by the prosecution’s expert witness, the defense pointed out that the presence of Matthew’s DNA under the victim’s fingernail was not sufficient to tie him to the crime. Pointing out that the DNA could have been transferred to the victim inadvertently by contact with a common surface, defense attorneys attempted to argue for reasonable doubt in the fact of strong expert testimony that forensically linked Matthew to the attack. Before defense attorneys could mount a more stringent defense, however, Matthew voluntarily withdrew his case and entered the Alford plea. Under the terms of the plea, Matthew could face up to 3 consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole.
Jesse Matthew Faces Capital Murder Charges in College Student Murder
The resolution of the 2005 sexual assault case against Matthew does not conclude his legal case. Prosecutors have already charged him with capital murder for the assault and killing of Hannah Graham in 2014. Although prosecutors in the Graham case cannot use Matthew’s conviction against him during trial, if he is found guilty for the murder of Graham the State can use the sexual assault case to demonstrate likelihood of future dangerousness – an element necessary to earning the death penalty in Virginia.
Details of the Graham case have not been revealed because a trial date has not been set, but DNA expert testimony will definitely play an important role in that prosecution as well because Matthew has been linked forensically to the Hannah’s remains. Matthew has not yet been charged for the fatal assault on Morgan Harrington, which is the third attack that he his DNA has been linked to by forensic expert investigators. Matthews will be sentenced under the terms of his Alford plea later this month.
DNA matching is a high definition science and improving all the while, it seems a little odd to call highly skilled scientists “expert witness”, it may not be legalese but I think I prefer the former!