'One Little Gesture of Compassion Can Make Such a Difference,' says Gil Harrington

By K.C. Baker
Updated March 10, 2016 12:05 PM
Courtesy Harrington Family; Steve Helber/AP

One mother lost her daughter when she was murdered in 2009 at the age of 20. Another lost her son when he was sentenced last week to four life terms in prison for murdering that young woman.

In an extraordinary showing of compassion and understanding, those two women, bound by tragedy, came together to lift each other up when Jesse Matthew, Jr. pleaded guilty March 2 to the Virginia murders of Morgan Harrington, 20, and Hannah Graham, 18.

“One little gesture of compassion can make such a difference,” Morgan’s mother, Gil Harrington, tells PEOPLE. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Gil and Dan Harrington first saw Matthew’s family in a Virginia court in September 2015, the same day they came face to face with their daughter’s killer when he was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder and abduction with the intent to defile in her disappearance and death.

When Matthew got up to leave the courtroom, led by officers and in chains, “He looked long and hard at me and Dan,” Gil says. “I wanted him to see my face.”

After he left, Gil put her intense feelings for Matthew aside when she approached his mother, Debra Carr, who stood in the courtroom, waiting to leave.

“I saw, even as I walked up to her, that she was braced for the lash,” says Gil. “She was ready for me to spit at her or say something ugly. She didn’t know. She steeled herself to what she thought I was going to give her.”

But what Gil gave her was her hand.

“I said, ‘I realize this is difficult for your family as well. My condolences.’ I put my hand out and we shook hands she said thank you and we walked away from each other.

“I think it didn’t hurt for them to know I didn’t hate them. Even he [Jesse Matthew] I don’t hate.”

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She reached out to Carr, she says, “because I knew she was hurting. Every time I went to court, I could feel their family suffering because they would wait until the courtroom cleared and then they would kind of scurry out.

“When I leave the courtroom, I run the gauntlet of well wishers, six-and-a-half years out, but they run the gauntlet of people who despise them for something they didn t do. I felt bad.”

Matthew’s Mother Said, ‘I Will Pray for You and Your Family’

Gil’s gesture was not lost on Matthew’s family. On March 2, just before Matthew entered his guilty pleas in Harrington’s and Graham’s murders, 15 to 20 people from Matthew’s family came over and shook hands with her and Dan, one by one by one, she says. ‘Each of them, said, ‘We are so sorry.’ ”

The last family member to approach the Harringtons was Matthew’s mother.

“We actually hugged each other and she said, ‘I will pray for you and your family.’ I said, ‘I will do the same for yours.’ It was so moving.”

She was further touched when she learned that Matthew’s uncle, the Rev. Louie Carr, apologized for his nephew’s actions. “He said, ‘Our family is sorry for the pain that has been caused by one of our family members,’ ” Harrington remembers. “He said, ‘We didn’t realize it. We hope one day that the Grahams and the Harringtons will find peace.’ ”

While she feels for Matthew’s family, she is also relieved that justice was served in her daughter’s case.

“We wanted the validation that Morgan meant enough to have a trial and some sort of accountability of what had been done to her, even though we already knew he wasn t going to get out and hurt anyone again.”

In October 2015, Matthew received three life sentences for the 2005 attempted murder, sexual assault and abduction of a 26-year-old woman in Fairfax County.

“We wanted some accountability that he hurt our family. It’s been a long, hard road, but no more. That’s finished now.”