Jesse Matthew Pleads Not Guilty in Fairfax Attack

The victim in the Fairfax trial of Jesse Matthew, who could eventually face a death penalty in the slaying of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, took the stand Monday afternoon.

Matthew formally pleaded not guilty to attempted first-degree murder, abduction and sexual assault in the Fairfax case, which could send him to prison for life. The trial got underway Monday, despite protests from the defense that they hadn't had enough time to prepare. When asked by Judge David Schell if he was ready for trial, Matthew responded, "No."

Friday evening, the victim suddenly remembered additional details about what happened that night, prosecutors said. Matthew's attorney complained the last-minute nature of this revelation was an "ambush" and made it difficult for them to respond.

"I'm not sure the victims in these kinds of cases may remember things as others may wish," Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh said.

Matthew, 33, is accused of attacking the woman, age 26 at the time, as she walked home from a grocery store in September 2005.

The woman told jurors how she screamed, kicked and scratched to fend off her attacker.

Her efforts to fight him off, prosecutors said, helped produce the DNA evidence that links Jesse Matthew, 33, of Charlottesville to the September 2005 attack -- DNA recovered from under her fingernail after she fought her assailant connected Matthew after he was identified as a suspect in Graham's case last year.

Public defender Robert Frank, one of Matthew's lawyers, urged jurors to be cautious in evaluating DNA evidence saying DNA can be transferred inadvertently by coming in contact with common objects.

"There is a possibility that DNA came ... from innocent contact," he said.

The victim, who flew back from India to testify at the trial, told jurors that she struggles even now to describe what happened to her.

She told the jury that she had walked from her Fairfax townhome to a nearby bookstore and lost track of time while she was reading, not realizing night had approached. She stopped at an adjacent supermarket to pick up a few items and started walking back home.

As she returned, a stranger approached her and asked her a confused question about directions, she said. She politely tried to answer and walked away, saying the man's demeanor left her unnerved.

A few steps from her door, she said, her attacker grabbed her and scooped her up from behind. He dragged her back to some nearby woods.

"He banged my head on the grass, on the ground. I was trying to push him away. I was punching him. He choked me," said the woman. "He said, 'If you scream again, I will twist your neck. If you let me do this, I will let you go.'"

At some point, she said, she lost consciousness as she was being choked.

The attack ended when Matthew dragged her to another location and ran off, right around the time a bystander was approaching. she said,

"She looked like she was nearly dead," said the man who intervened, Mark Castro. "She was walking toward me, slowly. ... She had a lot of blood on her. She was in bad shape."

During about 90 minutes of testimony, she never explicitly identified Matthew as her attacker. Defense lawyers had questioned whether she could do so reliably, given the passage of time and the pretrial publicity that frequently broadcast Matthew's face in connection with the Hannah Graham case, which drew international headlines.

In cross-examination, defense lawyer Dawn Butorac questioned why the woman had not told police earlier that her attacker had tried to rape her, which she disclosed to prosecutors only on Friday.

The woman replied, "It was the most shocking thing and I couldn't come to take it as a reality."

Matthew, wearing a dress shirt and yellow tie, entered his plea in a soft-spoken voice as the trial began Monday. 

Jury selection lasted almost three hours Monday. One issue that repeatedly came up was impartiality: Could the potential jurors disregard everything they had seen in the media about Matthew? Several people were excused after stating they did not think they would be able to give him a fair judgment. 

Matthew was charged in the long-unsolved Fairfax case last year after his arrest in connection with Graham's disappearance. DNA evidence links the 2005 Fairfax case to Graham's death, authorities said.

Matthew is also facing charges of capital murder, first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile in the Graham case. Graham vanished in September 2014 after a night out with friends. Matthew was the last person seen with her, authorities say. Graham's remains were found about five weeks later.

The victim in the Fairfax case arrived in the United States last week from India to testify against him.

Jury selection begins Monday morning and could stretch into Tuesday. The judge said 100 potential jurors will be available Monday and another 50 on Tuesday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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