Man pleads guilty to student slayings

Jesse Matthew Jr. is charged with the high-profile slayings of two college students in Virginia.

Jesse Matthew Jr. is charged with the high-profile slayings of two college students in Virginia.  (AP)

A Virginia man avoided a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile for the slayings of two college students.

Jesse LeRoy Matthew Jr. entered the pleas Wednesday in Albemarle County Circuit Court and received four consecutive life terms.

Matthew already was serving three life terms for a 2005 sexual assault in northern Virginia.

The former hospital orderly pleaded guilty in the September 2014 killing of 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham and the 2009 slaying of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, who vanished after a Metallica concert at the University of Virginia.

Through his attorney, Matthew said he was sorry and loves his family very much.

According to authorities, Graham and Harrington were young women in vulnerable straits when they vanished in Charlottesville five years apart. Harrington disappeared after she stepped out of a U.Va. arena and was unable to get back in. Graham, after having dinner and attending parties off campus, was captured on surveillance video walking unsteadily, and sometimes running, past a service station and a restaurant. She texted a friend that she was lost.

Additional video showed Graham crossing Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall, then leaving a restaurant with Matthew, his arm wrapped around her.

Graham's disappearance, which came at a time of rising national concern about sexual assaults and other crimes on college campuses, prompted a massive search. Her body was found five weeks later on abandoned property in Albemarle County, about 12 miles from the Charlottesville campus and 6 miles from a hayfield where Harrington's remains had been found in January 2010.

After police named Matthew a person of interest in Graham's disappearance, he fled and was later apprehended on a beach in southeast Texas. He was charged with abduction with intent to defile, a felony that empowered police to swab his cheek for a DNA sample. That sample connected Matthew to the 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax, a Virginia suburb of Washington, according to authorities.

The DNA evidence in the Fairfax sexual assault, in turn, linked Matthew to the Harrington case, authorities have said.

The charge against Matthew in the Graham case was later upgraded to capital murder, giving prosecutors the option to seek the death penalty.

Matthew, who was a taxi driver before going to work at the University of Virginia hospital, also had been accused of raping students in 2002 and 2003 at Liberty University and Christopher Newport University, where he had played football. But those cases were dropped when the women declined to press charges.