FAIRFAX, Virginia — The man charged with abducting University of Virginia student Hannah Graham — whose body was later found on an abandoned farm — is scheduled to face a judge Friday in a separate case in Fairfax, Virginia.
Jesse Matthew will appear for the brief procedural hearing via video from the jail where he’s being held in Charlottesville, Virginia, officials say. In that separate case — in which a young woman was sexually assaulted — Matthew faces charges of abduction, sexual assault, and attempted capital murder.
He may also face more serious counts beyond the abduction charge in the Graham case, in light of the discovery of the 18-year-old’s body October 18.
But analysts say he may be tried first in Fairfax, because authorities there have had more time to build their case, and they have both DNA evidence as well as a potential eyewitness.
Woman was dragged, sexually assaulted
In the Fairfax case, authorities say that on September 24, 2005, a young woman returning from a grocery store was grabbed from behind by an assailant and sexually assaulted.
“We saw her purse on the front sidewalk,” said neighbor Stacey Simkins. “He had already dragged her behind our units to the dark pool area.”
Simkins did not see the suspect’s face, but she immediately called police.
“The offender was scared away by a passerby,” the FBI said in a statement, “but the victim got a good look at him.”
The victim helped authorities draw up a composite sketch, and now she could potentially be called as a witness at trial.
“I’d rather not say where she is, but she is cooperative,” Fairfax County Prosecutor Ray Morrogh said last week.
Evidence may be challenged
In addition to the victim’s potential testimony, the FBI also says it has DNA evidence in the case.
But DNA evidence can be challenged in court, said HLN legal analyst and defense attorney Joey Jackson, as can the testimony of the victim.
“When someone is undergoing a trauma, as in this case the victim was, you have to wonder whether that traumatic experience could make what she saw reliable,” Jackson said. “On the other hand, the prosecution will argue that it’s emblazoned in her memory.”
Still, testimony and forensics may not be the only evidence in the Fairfax case. Now that investigators have the name of a possible suspect, Jackson said, they are likely chasing dozens of new threads, searching for evidence. For example, they would be looking for cell phone records, texts, surveillance video, or toll booth receipts that might link Matthew to the crime scene, or any friends or relatives or business associates that might place him in Fairfax.
Matthew’s attorney asks to represent in both cases
Matthew’s attorney in Charlottesville, James Camblos, declined to comment on the charges or the evidence against him in either city. It is not yet certain whether Camblos will represent Matthew in the Fairfax case, although he has asked the judge for permission to do so. The judge is expected to address the question at Friday’s hearing.
It is unclear which trial would proceed first: the one in Fairfax, or in Charlottesville.
The Fairfax case is further along, according to former prosecutor Steve Deaton. “Fairfax has already been in a circuit court, with a grand jury,” he said.
“We’re sort of ready to go,” Fairfax prosecutor Morrogh told CNN this week. “But I can go first, or whenever.”
In Charlottesville, on the other hand, prosecutors last Friday said only that they are still weighing which charges they will file in the Hannah Graham case.
And that case could be more difficult to make, according to defense attorney Scott Goodman, since there may be no witnesses who could testify. It is also unclear what forensic evidence may exist in the case, aside from the surveillance video from the night of Graham’s disappearance — on September 13 — that shows Matthew, 32, apparently following her in Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall area.
“In Charlottesville, the case is much more complicated than Fairfax, because the Charlottesville case relies almost wholly on circumstantial evidence,” Goodman said.
Connection to another case?
There is also a third case to which Matthew may be linked: the murder of Morgan Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who was last seen hitchhiking along U.S. 29 outside of Charlottesville in October 2009. She was found dead on a nearby farm the following January. The FBI has said the case is linked by DNA to the Fairfax case. But according to Goodman, that case might be the most difficult to prove, because it is unclear whether there is any evidence placing the suspect and the victim together.
And as Deaton points out, it could be that none of the three cases results in a conviction against Matthew.
"I think it's important to remember now that this man is presumed innocent, and he has not been convicted of anything," he said.
Matthew was taken into custody September 24 while camping on a beach in Galveston, Texas, some 1,300 miles from Charlottesville. He is the only person detained in connection with Graham's disappearance, and was charged with abduction with the intent to defile.