UVA rape case: Student accepts lesser charge

On April 26 in Charlottesville Circuit Court, 19-year-old UVA second year Zachary Jesse– charged late last summer with rape– pled guilty to aggravated sexual battery, a felony charge carrying jail time of one to 20 years. And while the felony conviction strips a criminal of his right to vote and makes job hunting more difficult, for Jesse things could have been much worse: He faced a possible life sentence if convicted of the original charge.

The assault occurred last August, when students were celebrating their return to school.

On the night of August 19, the victim, a 19-year-old second-year UVA student, "pre-partied" with her roommates and friends and drank at least one margarita and several shots of tequila at her Brandon Avenue apartment before heading to a neighbor's apartment for a party.

Just hours later, she testified at a mid-December preliminary hearing, she was raped by Jesse both vaginally and anally while slumped over a toilet in her own apartment.

The victim– whose identity is being withheld in accordance with Hook policy, and who declined to comment for this article– testified that she had never seen Jesse, a graduate of Richmond's elite Collegiate prep school, before that night.

Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney John Zug says it's unusual for an acquaintance rape charge to ever see the light of day– much less go to trial.

"Close to 80 percent," says Zug, "go unreported."

Zug cites the victim's "great courage and strength" as the reason the case was prosecuted, leading to the guilty plea from Jesse, who will serve just three months of an eight-year sentence.

Zug denies the lesser charge was a cop out, and claims that the victim was "involved every step of the way." Says Zug: "We never would have entered into this without her concurrence."

In addition to the jail time, Jesse has agreed not to contact the victim and to withdraw from UVA for at least two years– the time it will take for the victim to graduate. UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says Jesse was still enrolled as of press time, but that at the end of the two-year period, he would have to reapply through the dean's office of whatever UVA department he would be attending. "At that time," she says, "his record would be reviewed."

The victim also requested that Jesse undergo counseling, something his lawyer, James C. Roberts, of the Richmond law firm Troutman Sanders, says he has already completed satisfactorily.

Zug says the victim wasn't concerned with a lengthy sentence.

"She didn't want to see him buried under the jail," says Zug. "She just wanted to see him held accountable."

In a written statement, Jesse's parents, Janice and Robert Jesse of Richmond, explained that their son is "devastated" and that his decision to take the plea was "to spare his family and hers the further pain that a trial would have caused."

They also expressed their own anguish over the situation.

"Our son is forbidden to have any contact with the young woman, which has eliminated any opportunity for him to express his regret to her," wrote the Jesses, "and on his behalf we do that now. We share her pain and that of her family... At the same, we pray they appreciate ours."

Roberts says it's difficult to have to take a guilty plea. "Nobody likes to see anybody go to jail," he says. But when faced with the possibility of a rape conviction carrying a sentence of five years to life in prison, Roberts says, his client took the sure thing.

"I couldn't promise him he wouldn't be convicted," says Roberts.

Zug says he believes the defense took the plea based on the strength of the evidence, both from the victim (who testified she was a virgin at the time of the incident) and from expert witnesses subpoenaed to testify at the trial. Among them was a sexual assault advocate who would have testified about the victim's "visible injuries," which Zug says were incompatible with the defendant's claim that the sex was consensual.

Julia Pearson, from the state's Division of Forensic Science, was also slated to testify for the Commonwealth on the victim's blood alcohol level and its resulting effects. Several hours after her last drink that August night, the victim tested .15, nearly double the state's legal limit. Pearson, reached in Richmond, could not comment on the case because the plea had been worked out prior to her briefing.

Jesse will report to the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Jail to begin serving his three months on May 18, according to Zug. Following his release, he will be on probation for 10 years, including 18 months of supervised probation.

Roberts says he believes both his client and the victim are "smart, talented, and highly moral people"– he blames the alcohol for the tragic events of the evening.

"It's because of the poor decisions they made because of the alcohol consumption," he says, "that this tragedy occurred."

Jesse's parents also blame the alcohol, and say they are "thankful both [Zachary and the victim] are alive."

The Jesses say their son has not had a drink since the incident, and they hope his story will be a warning to others.

"As parents," they write, "we urge all in the University of Virginia community to learn from this mistake in order to avoid a repeat of this tragedy."

Zachary Jesse's September 24 mug shot