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Virginia man who sexually assaulted, murdered Down syndrome woman gets 3 life sentences: 'Melia was just a ray of sunshine'

NBC 4 Washington Video Screenshot

A Virginia man was ordered to serve three life sentences for the brutal sexual assault and "extremely violent murder" of a 23-year-old woman with Down syndrome.

Melia Jones had just started working and living on her own for the first time before she was savagely murdered by a neighbor. Jones' teachers at the Pulley Career Center in Fairfax County described her as a success story and always a "ray of sunshine."

On Dec. 7, 2021, Melia was found dead in her apartment by her father. WRC-TV reported that her body was "wrapped in her Hannah Montana blanket with her T-shirt tied around her neck and a plastic bag over her head." The apartment was in disarray, with furniture toppled.

Jones had been mercilessly sexually assaulted and strangled to death. The Medical Examiner ruled Jones’ death a homicide.

On Jan. 11, 2022, police arrested 42-year-old David Jasante Cunningham in connection with Melia's murder.

A day before her murder, security camera video showed Jones happily dancing outside her apartment building as she awaited a food delivery. Footage also shows Cunningham near Jones, and making contact with her. Cunningham is captured on video following the Down syndrome woman to her apartment.

Detectives found Cunningham’s fingerprints on an aerosol spray can in Melia's bedroom. The blood of Jones was also found on the bottom of Cunningham's sandals – which he was wearing on the day of Melia's murder, according to security video.

Law & Crime reported, "Though Cunningham initially claimed he only kissed Jones and later claimed they engaged in consensual sexual activity, his DNA was found under her the victim’s fingernails. The former Coca-Cola warehouse worker had a crack cocaine addiction, his attorney Damon Colbert reportedly said in 2022 when asserting his client’s innocence. The defense said Cunningham’s DNA at the scene could explained by his at times 'amorous' friendship with Jones."

Cunningham never confessed to murdering Jones, and declined to offer an apology during the trial.

Cunningham was convicted of aggravated murder and two counts of object sexual penetration.

Prosecutors asked for the stiffest sentence possible for the crimes. On Thursday, Cunningham was sentenced to three life sentences for the sexual assault and murder of Melia Jones.

Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said, "Today, a predator has been held accountable for the knowing, premeditated sexual assault and murder of a precious human being. For the rest of his life, the defendant will be housed in a prison, free to reflect and reckon on his vile and vicious acts. He deserves no better. But I do not wish to focus on the defendant. Instead, I choose to focus on the wonderful, love-filled life lived by Melia Jones.”

Melia's obituary reads:

While in high school, Melia participated in two Flags across America events honoring deceased veterans at Arlington National Cemetery, She also participated in multiple community cleanup events. Also during high school, she participated in the Work Awareness and Transition (WAT) Program. During October 2015-June 2016, she worked at Fort Belvoir [Army] Commissary and was awarded Employee of the Month. While at Pulley Career Center, she worked at Crystal City Marriott Hotel as a housekeeper and banquet service representative. She was awarded Employee of the Month on two separate occasions. While employed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as customer service representative, she earned the Perfect Attendance Award and Employee of the Month for Accomplishments and Exceeding Expectations. In the role as kiosk stocker (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport), Melia was awarded the Perfect Attendance Award during Oct 2019-Mar 2020.

Melissa Bindocci of Pulley Center said, "Melia was just a ray of sunshine always, and she just brought hope and laughter and lightness and just pure joy every day."

Cunningham’s defense team reportedly plans to file an appeal.

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