The judge presiding over Jesse Matthew’s trial in the murder of former second-year College student Hannah Graham has denied a motion to formally recuse herself from the case.
Judge Cheryl Higgins, who is scheduled to preside over Matthew’s month-long jury trial in July 2016, will stay on the case. The motion for recusal was filed on June 16 by Matthew’s defense counsels, Virginia Capital Defender Douglas Ramseur and Charlottesville attorney Michael Hemenway.
Matthew faces capital murder in an Albemarle County Circuit Court. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
At the hearing, Matthew also waived his right to a speedy trial.
Ramseur said Higgins may be unable to be a fair arbiter for the case because she signed a large number of the search warrants during the investigative period. Of the 54 search warrants and orders issued to seize evidence in the case, Ramseur said Higgins authorized 25.
“All … of these search warrants [and] orders, the court already made decisions and now would have to review their decision making,” Ramseur said. “It’s not one search warrant we’re talking about, it’s not 10 — it’s 25 we’re talking about.”
Citing an “appearance of impropriety,” Ramseur also cited Higgins’ relationship to the University. Higgins’ daughter is a rising third year at the University.
“We’re dealing with appearances of impropriety,” Ramseur said. “Your Honor is in a unique position. You have a daughter in the same position that Hannah Graham was in when she was attending the University.”
Higgins has said that her daughter attended a vigil for Graham soon after her disappearance. However, Higgins said the vigil was held before Graham’s body was found.
“The University of Virginia is not the victim,” Higgins said. “I do not find I should recuse myself because my daughter attends U.Va. or went to the vigil.”
Higgins also said neither she nor any family members were involved in the investigation into Graham’s disappearance and Matthew’s aside from her professional duty in signing the warrants.
Still, Higgins said the court would proceed in “an overabundance of caution” and appoint another judge to preside over any trials in which the search warrants are immediately relevant.
“I think I can fairly review my own decisions,” Higgins said. “Courts do it all the time.”
Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford said she agreed with Higgins’ decision to continuing presiding over the case.
“The Commonwealth believes that it’s equally important for the community to know that the matter is being presided over by a judge that is within this community, that is responsible to this community,” Lunsford said.
The next step in what will be a lengthy legal process is a motion hearing set for Aug. 20. The following hearings, of which they are eight, are scheduled approximately six to eight weeks apart prior to the jury trial in 2016.
Earlier this month, Matthew entered an Alford plea to charges of attempted capital murder, sexual assault and abduction in an unrelated 2005 Fairfax County case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on those charges on Oct. 2.