- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A convicted rapist pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing two Virginia college students and avoided the death penalty by taking a deal that calls for him to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Jesse LeRoy Matthew Jr., 34, was sentenced to four consecutive life terms when he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abduction with the intent to defile in the deaths of Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington, two remarkably similar murder cases that amplified concerns about campus safety.

Matthew looked directly at family members during his plea hearing but showed no emotion. He said through his attorney that “he is very sorry and he loves his family very much.”

Graham’s mother, Susan Graham, said her daughter accomplished great things, but in a way people never would have imagined — she enabled law enforcement to apprehend a “serial rapist” who had been “hiding in plain sight in Charlottesville for years.”

“She is a heroine,” Graham’s mother said.

After Graham’s death, Matthew was charged with a felony that empowered police to swab his cheek for a DNA sample. Authorities have said that sample connected Matthew to a 2005 sexual assault in Northern Virginia and the 2009 disappearance of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington.

He was convicted in the rape case and sentenced to three life terms.

According to authorities, Graham and Harrington were young women in vulnerable straits when they vanished in Charlottesville five years apart. Harrington, 20, disappeared in 2009 after she stepped out of a University of Virginia arena during a Metallica concert and was unable to get back in.

Graham, an 18-year-old University of Virginia student, vanished after having dinner and attending parties off campus in 2014. She 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 six miles from a hayfield where Harrington’s remains had been found in January 2010.

Graham’s mother said Matthew dumped her daughter’s body “like a bag of trash” to be picked over by buzzards.

Prosecutor Robert Tracci said the plea deal serves the interest of justice in several ways, including avoiding the re-victimization of the Harrington and Graham families that would result from a long and highly publicized trial.

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, and his cheek was swabbed for a DNA sample. That sample connected Matthew to a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax, 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 later was 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.

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