Faced with DNA evidence tying him to the scene of a murder, a former maintenance worker pleaded guilty Monday to killing a 20-year-old Blinn College student who lived at the apartment complex where he was employed.
Jeremiah Matthew Rosser, 28, was sentenced to 55 years in prison as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. The deal was finalized about two weeks before his trial was set to begin for the death of Jenna Verhaalen, who was found strangled to death in her apartment in April 2008.
Rosser said in court that he entered the plea deal to spare his family -- including his two children -- the pain of going through the trial.
Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and wearing handcuffs, Rosser said little during the hearing and kept his head down. He nodded to his parents seated in the gallery behind him as he entered the courtroom, but averted his glance from the 50 or so friends and family members of Verhaalen who attended the hearing.
But Verhaalen's mother, Dina, ordered Rosser to look at him as she gave a victim's impact statement at the end of the hearing. She said she doubted that Rosser felt any regret.
"You will probably never comprehend what you did to my family," she said.
Verhaalen's sister and father also addressed Rosser.
Diana Verhaalen, Jenna's sister, walked directly up to Rosser and stood about two feet away from him, separated only by a short, wooden partition between the gallery and the court. She spoke softly, pausing for multiple seconds between sentences.
"She was worth far more than a lifetime in prison," she said, as Rosser looked down and bit his lower lip. "I hope you will find forgiveness in your heart. I commit to forgiving you, and I commit to praying for you and hoping that you might find the ability to be sorry."
Verhaalen's father, Jim, said he hadn't planned to say anything, but was compelled to speak after witnessing the hearing.
"I want you to know that every time you move from a prison to another prison, I will come and meet with the warden to let them know about the monster you are," he said. "I will be at your parole hearing to make sure you aren't let out in 27 and a half years."
Rosser will be eligible for parole after serving half his sentence. He already has served more than a year in jail awaiting trial.
If he had been convicted by a jury, he could have faced up to 99 years or a life sentence for the first-degree felony.
"Our assessment is that 55 years is obviously better than a 99 or life sentence, which is where we felt this case was headed," said Earl Gray, Rosser's defense attorney.
He also pleaded guilty to burglary, a charge that was added soon after his murder arrest when police found a stolen laptop in his vehicle. He was sentenced to five years in prison for that crime, but his sentence will run concurrently with the murder sentence. He faced a maximum punishment of 20 years for that crime.
Gray said prosecutors also could have taken the unrelated burglary charge to trial, and asked the court to stack the sentences.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Price said Rosser's deal was the longest sentence that lawyers in his office can remember relating to a defendant pleading guilty in a case that wasn't a capital offense.
"I think that is due to the savageness of the crime," he said.
He said prosecutors didn't pursue the death penalty because they had trouble finding credible evidence that Rosser committed another felony in the act of the murder, or that he had a motive that the law would permit them to seek a capital murder conviction.
"I have my own suspicions, but it is hard to say [what the motive was]," Price said.
Rosser had no prior criminal history prior to the killing, Price said.
Authorities said that Rosser casually knew Verhaalen, who was a freshman in the legal assistant program at Blinn and worked at the Wings 'N More in College Station, from work he did in her apartment.
His arrest came after a lengthy investigation in which many of Verhaalen's friends and family were questioned. Authorities interviewed Rosser on Oct. 1, more than five months after the murder, and he willingly gave a DNA sample. That sample matched skin found under Verhaalen's right fingernails and blood on her shirt.
"The DNA evidence was overwhelming in this case," Gray said. "The juries may not understand the actual science behind the DNA, but they believe in DNA."