The Mirror

Go Behind The Scenes Of The Jesse Matthew Attempted Murder Trial

Betsy Rothstein Gossip blogger
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As Jesse Matthew was convicted Wednesday of a 2005 sexual attack in Fairfax County on Wednesday, his girlfriend, family and about 40 reporters watched on. His conviction includes attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile and a sexual assault charge. His sentencing is scheduled for October.

Matthew entered an Alford plea and relinquished his defense.

(As explained to The Mirror, an Alford plea means he maintains his innocence, but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to have him be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not a plea deal, which generally involves pleading to a lesser charge with an agreement on what sentence prosecutors will seek.)

The Mirror caught up with WTOP’s Neal Augenstein, an intrepid reporter in the courtroom this week, to press him about the media coverage.

The Mirror: Tell me a few generalities. How long have you been covering the case?

Augenstein: I started covering this case when Hannah Graham disappeared from University of Virginia in mid-September 2014. It started out as a missing person’s case, but quickly developed into a crime story when police released surveillance videos of Graham walking along the Charlottesville Mall. Soon after, police put a name with the person she was walking with, and we first heard the name Jesse Matthew.

The Mirror: What was it like to see Jesse Matthew in person? Was he what you thought he’d be like? What is he like, at least in the courtroom?

Augenstein: He’s a big guy. He played football in high school and college. Since he’s been in custody he’s shaved his beard, and his hair has gotten a lot longer. During the entire process he hasn’t talked much in court.

He generally looks at his lawyers before answering the judge’s questions, and his “yes, sirs” have always been quiet but polite.

Watching him at the defense table sometimes he seems engaged, other times a little oblivious or confused — I guess most people would be confused by the legal process. Looking at him, a few times I thought about how much his life changed after he met Hannah Graham, and Morgan Harrington, and I also wonder if there were other women whose lives were changed after meeting Jesse Matthew.

The Mirror: How is it dealing with the lawyers? Is one side more willing to help reporters like you than the other?

Augenstein: In this particular case, since there’s still sentencing to go, and leaks and guidance I want to get, I don’t think I wanna detail who’s willing to talk with me and who’s not.

It’s different in different cases. Sometimes prosecutors or defense lawyers are willing to feed you motions as they’re filed with the court. Documents that have been filed are the gold — motions, search warrants, and that sorta stuff — because they give you a narrative to help understand what happened in a case. And, you don’t have to give away who provided you with the document.

I try to bend over backwards to tell both sides what I’m going to report before I do it, both to give them a chance to add a comment or “no comment,” but also so they don’t feel blindsided. I try to let lawyers know they won’t be surprised by a report if they speak with me, and sometimes that loosens them up.

In one case, the DC Madam case, the defendant Deborah Jeanne Palfrey was communicating with me by email before and during her trial. It’s unheard of for someone charged with felonies to give on-the-record interviews leading up to a trial, in some cases against her lawyer’s wishes. I had to warn her several times that maybe she shouldn’t be speaking with a reporter, but she felt telling her story in the court of public opinion could help affect her court case.

The Mirror: In your heart of hearts do you think he’s guilty? Do you think he committed the other murders? Does he look and seem like someone who is a sociopath or guilty in your estimation?

Augenstein: Now that he’s taken an Alford plea for this 2005 sexual attack in Fairfax, I can say I’m not surprised by the plea. The woman was walking home from Giant with two bags of groceries. He picked her up and carried her into a wooded area. DNA analysis found his DNA under the woman’s fingernails after she scratched him during the attack. A DNA match is tough to defend against.

Do I think he’s guilty of killing Hannah Graham, and if he’s eventually charged, Morgan Harrington? The burden is always on the prosecution to make its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Without prejudging the few pieces of evidence that are public in the Graham and Harrington cases, I will say this Fairfax Alford plea puts him in a position to have a tiny bit of leverage in those Albemarle County cases. If his case goes to trial, the jury wouldn’t be able to hear about his conviction in Fairfax.

But if he decides to plead guilty to the Hannah Graham murder, during sentencing the judge could take the Alford plea into consideration when choosing between death and a life sentence. Since Hannah Graham is a capital murder case, I’d say maybe the defense would be willing to plead, if prosecutors were willing to take the death penalty off the table.

Denise Lunsford, the Albemarle prosecutor has said she’s open to a plea before trial.

The Mirror: What were the jurors like — did any of the get emotional?

Augenstein: It didn’t register on their faces. They knew from jury selection and opening statements that they’d be hearing about a brutal crime. They paid close attention. The case moved along much faster than expected. It was supposed to last 9 days, it lasted two-and-a-half. The jurors heard some brutal stuff. And after they heard there was a plea, and they didn’t get to render a verdict, some told reporters they were a bit disappointed, but every juror I’ve heard quoted said they would have convicted Jesse Matthew.

The Mirror: Tell me about the judge. What is his or her demeanor on the case and toward Matthews?

Augenstein: I was impressed by the way Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Schell handled the the case. His decision to allow live tweeting in the courtroom was a surprise until the morning trial began, but it instantly provided the public with real-time insight with what was happening in a high profile case, without disrupting the solemnity of the courtroom, especially with a jury present.

In the weeks leading up to trial, the court published on its website, in an area where documents related to the case are filed, a defense motion that included the full name of the victim of the 2005 attack.

Most news organizations don’t publish the name of victims of sexual attacks, but it was there in the open, for people who don’t have the same set of ethics that journalists do. I alerted both the prosecution and defense that someone probably should have redacted the woman’s name.

A few hours later the document was taken offline. The next day in court the judge thanked the media for its discretion in not publishing the woman’s name. Most journalists I know take pride in accuracy, objectivity, and context, and we appreciate it when the people we cover take notice.

What was Matthew’ family like? Were they emotional?

Augenstein: The Matthew family wanted their privacy, and for the most part they got it. I’m sure some they’ve had their photos on TV or online more than they’d prefer, but reporters treated them with respect, offered them the chance to speak, and didn’t pester after being told no.

While I didn’t get to ask how they were feeling, Matthew’s sister put on sunglasses before he entered his plea. I trust that was so prying reporters wouldn’t say that she was crying. Matthew’s dad was there for the whole trial. Before the plea was entered he had his head down in his lap for a while. Matthew’s mother had tears in her eyes.

I didn’t see any emotion from Matthew’s girlfriend, who sat between Matthew’s parents during much of the trial. A lot of people, me included, had no idea he had a girlfriend. And I would have loved to ask her about their relationship. But, to the best of my knowledge, I think reporters gave the woman and the Matthew family space and whatever privacy can be afforded in a crowded courtroom.

What were the other reporters like covering the case? How many (approximately)? Very competitive or helpful with each other?

Augenstein: There were probably about 40 reporters there. And a lot of members of the public who follow trials and tweet about them. Like a lot of beats in Washington, reporters get to know each other covering cases, so there is camaraderie.

I think Fairfax County Circuit Court went a long way toward breeding civility by allowing the use of mobile devices during trial. I wish more courts were that forward-thinking. I know many people, including lawyers, don’t care for reporters, but as I look at most of the coverage, it seems to be accurate and fair.

Of course, reporters will always try to get information first, which is part of the business, as long as it doesn’t affect the trial itself. But then again, I think every reporter who scores a little scoop remembers it a lot more than the public. I think a lot of reporters did a good job of telling a scary, violent, long-unsolved story.

And, in my opinion, in most cases the legal process gets things just about right.