Charges Against Jesse Matthew: The Strongest Case Goes First

Oct 21, 2014

Charlottesville Attorney Dave Heilberg
Credit Hawes Spencer

With charges starting to pile up against the man blamed for one woman's rape and another's disappearance, who decides where to prosecute first?

Charged in Charlottesville with the abduction of Hannah Graham, forensically linked to the Albemarle County death of Morgan Harrington, Jesse Matthew has now been indicted for three felonies in Fairfax. What happens when different prosecutors want the same man?

"They usually cooperate to decide who goes first,” says veteran Charlottesville defense attorney David Heilberg.

And the first prosecutor to make a public statement about Matthew, Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney, Ray Morrogh, agrees with that. "These are all very complex cases, and all I can say is I'm willing to go first, last, or whenever."

Fairfax obtained grand jury indictments against Matthew for a brutal 2005 attack in which the perpetrator allegedly attempted to strangle his victim after raping her while she made her way home on foot from a nearby grocery store.

"There must be some kind of a strong link in Fairfax for them to go ahead and indict and go forward."

Unlike Morgan Harrington, whose skeletal remains were found in a cow pasture 100 days after she disappeared from a 2009 rock concert, the Fairfax woman survived when a passerby interrupted the attack. An ensuing police sketch shows a goateed man that some say closely resembles Matthew. Investigators haven't specified all their Fairfax evidence.

Virginia law requires that incarcerated inmates get their trial within five months of indictment, but the law is silent on when competing jurisdictions get to prosecute the same person.

"There are no rules other perhaps than the speedy trial. So by filing when they did, Fairfax has put themselves on the clock to go first."

A strong prosecution and conviction in Fairfax would give Charlottesville and Albemarle officials time not only to build a case around Hannah Graham and/or Morgan Harrington but also to decide which jurisdiction would prosecute.

"Venue for a homicide can be where the body is found, so now there are two bodies with a link of unknown strength in Albemarle County, so I could see that as the locality where the most serious and final charges will be prosecuted."