Understanding the first week of the George Huguely murder trial

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 The Charlottesville Circuit Court opens at 8:30am, but the Huguely trial usually starts at 9:30. The first hour is taken up with other business, like Thursday’s drug court. Men and women, a clear majority of them African-American, file in to meet with their court appointed attorneys and plead their cases. Judge Edward Hogshire hears updates on their progress in community service, Alcoholics Anonymous, and finding employment. “Are you working the steps,” he asks. “You staying away from the people you need to stay away from?”

George Wesley Huguely V, a 24-year-old former UVA lacrosse player, is charged with first degree murder, felony murder, robbery, burglary, statutory burglary, and grand larceny, in conjunction with the May 3, 2010 death of fellow UVA student and lacrosse player, Yeardley Love. Huguely showed up for his trial noticeably thinner, clean cut, and wearing a suit that seems slightly too big. When the recording of his interview with Charlottesville Police detectives was played in the courtroom last week, he cried openly. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

With the sidewalk lined with TV cameras and photographers, and the courtroom starting to fill with reporters from The Washington Post and ESPN, it’s easy to forget that the drumbeat of judgment falls on regular people every day and every one of Hogshire’s decisions carries consequences that could alter the course of their lives. What separates the Huguely case is that it would take most of the defendants in drug court at least two years to make as much money as George Huguely’s parents spent on one semester of prep school.

Judge Hogshire has a warm and caring demeanor, leaning down from his perch to commend someone on his hard work, his efforts at self-improvement. Which does he find more fulfilling, I wonder? This, or the spectacle that awaits in the next hour? Where does he feel the weight more?

You know the case already, I suspect. George Wesley Huguely V, a 24-year-old former UVA lacrosse player, is charged with first degree murder, felony murder, robbery, burglary, statutory burglary and grand larceny, in the May 3, 2010 death of fellow UVA student and lacrosse player, Yeardley Love. Love was 22 years old when she died. The charges carry the possibility of a life sentence without parole.

The case was big news when it broke, making the cover of People Magazine. In the almost two years since, public awareness has ebbed and flowed. The verdict may be less than a week away, so regional and national interest is high.

You could attribute the media frenzy to many things, not least of which is the fact that Love and Huguely were young, good-looking, and wealthy. How many journalists could you get in a room by starting a sentence with “prep school” and ending it with “murder”? Plenty, and watch out for the drool on their BlackBerrys. Nothing gets read like a murder case. People devour version on version of the same narrative, trying to find something no one else knows.

Love’s death happened only four years after some male lacrosse players at Duke University were falsely accused of raping a stripper. When the Love story broke, it was pointed out that several of the players associated with that case had gone to the same Bethesda, Maryland prep school as Huguely. Both cases became occasions to talk about the depravity and moral shortcomings of lacrosse players and preppies, words that many people consider to be synonymous.

Locally, the 2003 stabbing of Walker Sisk by Andrew Alston casts a long shadow over the proceedings. Like Love, Sisk was 22 and died on the Corner, but unlike Love and Huguely, he was a local firefighter. When the 21-year-old Alston, a UVA student from Pennsylvania, was sentenced to three years in jail after stabbing Sisk 20 times, it was seen by many as evidence that justice was different for UVA students with money.

I’m not saying the two cases are the same, but if Huguely is given a lighter sentence, it’s inevitable that the issues of money, class, and elitism that have dogged UVA and Charlottesville since the beginning will be very hard to ignore.

Other people see the trial’s larger significance as a message about the issue of domestic violence, still others about public safety on campus communities, and then there’s always the larger question of whether or not the kids are all right.

The Commonwealth of Virginia v. George Huguely finally got underway on February 6. Representing Virginia are Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman and Deputy C.A. Claude Worrell. Huguely has retained defense from a local law firm, St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, and his case is being argued by two of its partners: Francis McQ. Lawrence and Rhonda Quagliana. As I write this, the trial is scheduled to run through February 17. But the going has been slow, so the sound money is on at least one additional day.

Before testimony could begin, a herd of 160 potential jurors had to be winnowed down to 15, 12 plus three alternates (though the final selection actually only yielded two). Jury selection was only supposed to last for a day and a half, but the attorneys questioned almost every juror individually, and the court’s struggle to marshal such a large group rendered the schedule hopelessly optimistic.

The purpose of jury selection is twofold. First, you want to find a group of people that has as little foreknowledge or prior opinion about the case as possible. Both sides have an interest in an unbiased jury, if nothing else to avoid the possibility of a mistrial. “I don’t want this case to come screaming back at me,” Judge Hogshire said at one point.

But given the amount of ink, digital and liquid, that has been expended covering the trial, finding jurors with no prior knowledge was largely impossible. Most of the potential jurors said they had heard about the case and had formed an opinion. Much to the defense’s consternation, the prevailing view was that Huguely was guilty. One potential juror who worked at UVA said he tells his daughters that, “The Corner is a dangerous place to be.”

On the one hand, you could look at an informed jury as a smart jury. (Imagine if we shielded voters from all information and then sat them in a room as each candidate took turns telling them what to think.) But listening to people talk about what they know will disabuse you of that notion quickly. I heard one woman say that Love and Huguely were soccer players, and someone else said that Huguely had confessed to the police, which is a good example of how important nuance can be to the law. Most people assume that Huguely killed Love because he was at her apartment, there was a physical altercation, and she died. Seems clear cut.
But hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to deconstruct every inch of that argument, every second of the night Love died. Generalizations and assumptions are useful tools in everyday life, but in the courtroom they carry no currency.

We’re roughly halfway through the trial, and I’ve worked up a synopsis of some of the important information you might be using to make sense of the arguments. I’ve broken it into thematic categories, each of which is a potential legal battleground. But until the defense rests, we’ll all remain partially ignorant.

The Relationship
The relationship between Yeardley Love and George Huguely has been described as both “on-and-off” and “turbulent.” One friend said they started dating during their first year of school, but another said it was their third year. The general consensus seems to be that they were together for about two years. In their last year, the relationship was “more rocky than usual,” according to Love’s roommate Caity Whiteley.

Francis McQ. Lawrence and Rhonda Quagliana, Huguely’s defense attorneys, have maintained that Love’s death was a tragic accident. Lawrence used forensic testimony late last week to suggest that Love may have been alive, perhaps even on her feet, when Huguely left her apartment the night she died. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

The male and female lacrosse teams were very close, involved in relationships that for many of them stretched back to high school. Huguely and Love existed in an even closer subset of that group. They were friends, teammates, and romantic partners. The main characters involved in the testimony all shared apartments on 14th Street, close to the Corner, up the street from their favorite bar, Boylan Heights.

Mike Burns was a lacrosse player at the University of North Carolina who met Love at the 2008 Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown horse race held in Baltimore each May for the past 136 years. They “hooked-up,” meaning they engaged in some kind of sexual activity. They met again when they were both living in New York the summer of 2008, and were romantically involved. On February 27, 2010, Burns and some friends came up to UVA and went to a party at Huguely’s apartment. It was there that Burns says he saw Huguely choking Love (see The Incidents). Burns spent the night with Love, and they hooked up again. In the spring of 2010, Love visited Burns in Chapel Hill where they “had some sort of relationship.” Huguely angrily mentioned Burns in a series of e-mails partially recovered from Love’s computer and Huguely’s Blackberry (see The E-mails) by forensics.

Stephanie Aladj, who graduated from UVA in 2010, lived on Love’s hall her first year and both were members of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority. The two were friends at first, until Aladj started hooking-up with Huguely. Aladj says she never knew whether Love and Huguely were together at any given time and maintains that she and Love had “cleared the air” in 2009, becoming friends afterward. Aladj said that Huguely would come over to her house once or twice a week during the spring of 2010. He came to her house very late the night of Tuesday, April 27 and stayed for an hour. Earlier the same night, Love had heard from two tennis players that Huguely had been seen with another girl, presumably Aladj, which allegedly prompted Love to storm into his apartment and hit him with her purse (see The Incidents).

These are the people who spent nearly every waking hour with Love and Huguely, so in addition to being primary eyewitnesses, they’ve also helped the prosecution paint a picture of Huguely as a violent alcoholic in a troubled relationship. The picture the defense is painting is not really that different, only it is trying to show that Love existed in the same dysfunctional world.

As far as I can tell, the defense is arguing that both Love and Huguely were jealous and hurt by each other’s infidelities. The anger they felt had created a mutually abusive relationship punctuated by violent arguments. I don’t want to speculate too much about how the legal teams will make use of the sexual aspect of the relationship, but Huguely’s attorneys have already indicated that Love taunted Huguely with her affairs with Burns (see The E-mails below). Jealousy, of course, cuts both ways, and it could just as easily be seen as Huguely’s motive.

The Incidents
February 27, 2010 – Choking on the bed
Maybe the single most important piece of contested territory in the case is what happened the night of Saturday, February 27, 2010. Around 20 people, mostly lacrosse players (including four from UNC) were hanging out at Huguely’s apartment. Burns was in the hall between the two upstairs apartments, when he heard a girl yelling, “Help me! Help me!” He ran inside, followed by teammate Tim Fuchs, and opened Huguely’s bedroom door. Inside, he says he saw Huguely lying on his back on the bed, with Love on her back on top of him.

Burns claimed in court that Huguely’s arm was around Love’s neck. However, in preliminary testimony he said one arm was around her chest and one was around her arm. When the door opened, Huguely let go of Love and she ran out and went downstairs. She was “extremely upset,” crying and holding her throat. Later she told Burns that “everything was O.K. George was just being crazy,” before spending the night with Burns.

Brian Carroll heard about the incident the next day. A teammate, and twin brother to Huguely’s roommate, Carroll lived across the hall and was dating Love’s roommate Caity Whiteley. He spoke to Huguely about what happened, and Huguely told him he’d been trying to talk to Love, but she refused to talk to him. He was holding her, he said, to keep her from leaving. In the police interview the night he was arrested, Huguely was asked about the incident on February 27, and he said that he was “more drunk than [he’d] ever been.” Love started hitting him, he told the detectives, and so he “detained her.” He also said that he “really [doesn’t] remember that night at all.”

Caity Whiteley (right), Love’s roommate and close friend, has been a crucial witness for the prosecution and the defense. The defense has used her testimony to show that Huguely and Love were part of a close-knit party scene centered around their favorite bar, Boylan Heights. Whiteley was the last person to see Love alive before the altercation with Huguely that ended her life. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

A few days later, Huguely went over to Love’s apartment. Love was out, but he talked to Whiteley about what happened. According to Whiteley, Huguely knew something had happened, but didn’t remember what. He was angry, she said, that Love had told other people. He said that he wanted to write Love a letter. A letter from Huguely was found in her desk the night she died. The only excerpt from the letter that has surfaced thus far is the line, “We’ll always be friends.”

April 27, 2010 – The purse fight
On Tuesday, April 27, Love, Whiteley, roommate Kaitlin Duff, and two UVA tennis players went to Tokyo Rose and Coupe Deville’s. They had some drinks (the defense claims that Love was drinking shots of Patron tequila. In court, no one backed this claim up, but in the preliminary testimony, Whiteley said that Love was drinking shots.) The tennis players told Love two separate stories about seeing Huguely with Aladj. Love said she felt “stupid” according to Whiteley.

At about 9 or 10 that night, Huguely was at his apartment with Fuchs and two female high school seniors who were visiting UVA. At some point Love burst in and started “scolding” Huguely. “Are these your new girlfriends?” she asked. “Are these the girls you’ve been texting?” Huguely looked startled and embarrassed. Fuchs left. The couple started to argue, and then Love reportedly hit Huguely in the head with her purse. Another student, who arrived to collect the high school girls, said she heard Huguely say something like, “You crazy bitch,” but didn’t see Love hit Huguely. Elizabeth McLean, the girlfriend of Huguely’s roommate, was in the next bedroom. She testified that she heard Huguely tell Love to leave, and then what sounded like Love hitting him and the contents of the purse scatter on the floor. McLean said that Love seemed to have been drinking.

In the police interview, Huguely said that Love was hitting him in the face, and that “she wouldn’t stop.”

Both the prosecution and the defense will use these incidents as evidence that Love and Huguely’s relationship was a violent one. The defense will want to use the purse-hitting incident as proof that Love shared responsibility for the way the couple dealt with each other. They’ll likely say the choking incident was a mutual struggle, and that Love was often angry and drunk, a willing participant in the fighting.

The E-mails
The UVA women’s lacrosse team traveled to Chicago on April 29 to play a Friday game against Northwestern University. Love had lost her phone, but she brought her laptop with her, and she and Huguely sent a series of e-mails to each other. Huguely told the police that he sent her six e-mails saying he wanted to talk to her, presumably about the purse incident and other recent problems. While in Chicago, Love shared some of the e-mails with her roommate on the trip, Molly Millard, and another teammate, Molly McClintic.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman employs a workmanlike methodical manner as he examines witnesses. He has tried to show that Huguely was a young man spiraling out of control who threatened to kill Love and then delivered on his threat. (Art Lien/courtartist.com)

Huguely took Love’s laptop the night she died and tossed it into a dumpster. Only fragments of their e-mail history were recovered. Huguley wrote to Love: “A week ago you said you would get back together with me if I stopped drinking so much…But then you went and fucked Burns.”

“I love how you think you didn’t do anything wrong,” Huguely wrote, before referring to an e-mail or text from Love in which she allegedly told him, “Burns has fucked me better than you.”

“That’s so fucked up on so many levels, I should have killed you,” he responded.
Love fired back: “You should have killed me? You’re so fucked up.”

The “I should have killed you” line was the first significant piece of new information that surfaced this week. The prosecution sees it as an open-ended threat that shows Huguely intended to kill Love. The defense might say that Huguely’s words were empty, and that Love didn’t think he was a threat (hence the “You’re so fucked up” response.) Lawrence and Quagliana will want to point out that Huguely didn’t say that he was going to kill her, just that he should have, and offer the rest of the e-mails as evidence that Love was taunting Huguely about her affair with Burns, thus provoking him.

The Computer
No one disputes the fact that Huguely took Love’s computer from her house on May 2. He admits as much in his police interview, and says that he threw it in a dumpster as he walked home.

The question is why did he take it. The prosecution is using the theft of the computer as evidence of intent to kill (the e-mail was a threat, taking the computer was a way to get rid of the evidence). They’re also using the theft as a way to charge Huguely with felony murder (murder in the course of committing a felony, i.e. stealing a computer), which can also carry a life sentence.

The defense will likely point to the fact that when the police asked why he took the computer, Huguely responded, “Collateral, I guess. It’s not reasonable logic, but…” They could say that he took it hoping that it would force Love to come and see him. They might also say that it was a spur of the moment, drunken decision, that he then abandoned. Robbery, like first degree murder, requires intent, in this case the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the item, something Huguely seems to deny.

But what about the e-mails? Isn’t tossing it in the dumpster a clear sign he was trying to destroy evidence? When the detectives made the same accusation in the taped interview, Huguely pointed out that the e-mails were housed on the campus server; destroying the computer served no purpose. Besides, he said, they were on his computer at home as well.

The Drinking
We know Huguely had a drinking problem, but during cross-examination the defense made small attempts to highlight Love’s drinking as well. Huguely seems like less of a monster if his drinking can be seen as the extreme end of a continuum of behavior that was commonplace for his social group. The prosecution was careful to call for testimony from several friends who asserted that Huguely’s drinking was out of control and a problem.
The really important question is whether Huguely’s drinking will negate the prosecution’s claim that the killing was premeditated. Intoxication can be used to defend against a claim of premeditation, and as such could help drop the murder charge from first to second degree. It can do the same for the burglary charges as well.

Lots of witnesses say Huguely was drinking all day before going over to Love’s house. He was reportedly already buzzed when he was seen drinking at 9am. Frankly, I can’t see him setting the alarm for an 8am cocktail. He was drinking at Boylan Heights the night before, and I wonder if maybe when he was seen on the couch having that 9am beer, he’d just been up all night.

I also wonder why no parents stopped him at any time during the father-son golf game at Wintergreen that day. Huguely was unable to walk straight and was making inappropriate comments, yet he was allowed to keep drinking that night over dinner at the C&O. The answer may have something to do with Huguely’s father, George Huguely IV, who also has a reputation for abusing alcohol.

The Room
Part of this case is about understanding Huguely’s thoughts and intentions and part of it is about reading a crime scene.

Both sets of lawyers have focused on the locations of bloodstains found on the carpet, comforter, and pillow, fixating on where the blood came from. The defense will try to prove that some of the blood came from Love’s nose, but the rest came from her throat when she was intubated by the EMTs.

University of North Carolina lacrosse player Mike Burns had a sexual relationship with Yeardley Love. Burns, shown here giving testimony, discovered Huguely choking Love on his bed during an altercation that occurred at a party at Huguely’s house on February 27, 2010. (Art Lien/courtartist.com)

Interestingly, some of the forensic evidence in the room seems to help the defense. It claims that her injuries did not come from hitting the wall, in fact, she may not have hit the wall at all. The defense has an expert who will testify that the wall shows no sign of damage, a claim the prosecution has yet to counter. The pictures on the wall showed no sign of disturbance, which you would expect if she had been slammed into the wall violently. In fact, nothing in the room showed any sign of having been disturbed in a violent struggle.

The walls were thin. The downstairs neighbor had complained previously about noise from above. That night, she said she heard a crash when Huguely kicked the bedroom door, but nothing after that until she heard Huguely’s footsteps walking out. Why didn’t she hear a head being slammed against sheetrock?

The Body
At the close of the day Friday, the medical examiner hadn’t testified about the autopsy findings, so the details of Love’s injuries are still unavailable. One question that has been considered at length is this: What did Love do after Huguely left? She was found face down in bed, under the comforter, topless, wearing only her underwear. The light appears to have been on, and the blinds closed. In the bathroom, the toilet seat was up.

But according to Huguely she was wearing a black shirt. He says that the light was off, he could see by the light through the window, and that he pushed her onto the bed and left.
Earlier that night, Whiteley saw Love blow-drying her hair, naked except for her underwear. Did Love put a shirt on after Whiteley left? Did she, after the fight with Huguely, get up, turn on the light, take her shirt off, close the blinds, and crawl into bed?

Or did Huguely lie? Did he stay in her room for a while, go to the bathroom, and close the blinds? Did he take her shirt off and pull the comforter part way up her back? Did he tuck her in as she died?

The prosecution wants to show that Love was unresponsive and not moving when Huguely calmly walked out her door, that he left knowing she was dead or seriously injured.

In the police interview, Huguely is asked why he didn’t call the rescue squad since, as he says, her nose was bleeding? “I didn’t think she was, like, in need of going to the emergency room,” he said.

The defense wants to show that Love was still alive when Huguely left, was in fact up and walking around. They want as much distance as they can get between his assault and her heart stopping. They’re trying to show that she lay down in bed on her own, as if to go to sleep, and died as a result of “positional asphyxia,” a combination of being very drunk (her blood alcohol was .14) and lying face down on her pillow.

That scenario doesn’t explain why her right eye was swollen shut, or the injuries to her neck, but I’m sure they’ll get to that.

A week in court
I find it hard to imagine what it will be like to sit and hear the verdict read, let alone what that verdict will be. The thought makes me anxious. The trial has been exhausting for me, so I can imagine what it’s been like for the judge, the attorneys, the jury, and the families. I have to say, so far the defense team hasn’t impressed me. Lawrence is like one of those high priced defense attorneys villainized in a million courtroom dramas. He wears nicer suits and ties than his opponents and sports bling in his left ear, but his manner seems totally off. He swings between bumbling and annoyed, like a desperate salesman who’s pretty sure he didn’t win the Cadillac Eldorado or the set of steak knives. As far as I can tell he’s completely failing to win over the jury.

Rhonda Quagliana handled jury selection for the defense, but since then she’s been less prominent. Which is too bad, because she seems better suited to the role of legal eagle than Lawrence. Maybe they’re sandbagging.

Chapman and Worrell, by contrast, are solid and workmanlike. Worrell stays in the background letting Chapman handle the bulk of the questioning. Chapman has a face that could be carved of marble, and he speaks deliberately and assuredly, rhythm and smile never wavering.

George Huguely IV, the defendant’s father, has cut a lonely figure during the trial. His reputation for partying with his son’s friends came into particular focus as testimony revealed that the younger Huguely had been drinking heavily from early in the morning the day Love died, that he was slurring his speech during a father-son golf outing that day, and that he continued to drink at a dinner at C&O restaurant that evening. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

The defense has done very little cross-examination, presumably because there’s not much to argue about in the testimony. This is not a whodunit. The defense is going to depend heavily on its own expert testimony and scientific interpretation. The autopsy report will be crucial.

Although the details of Huguely’s e-mails and depositions hold ammunition for both sides, Friday’s dramatic presentation of the police interview was a game changer for the defense. Until then, the court of sympathy heavily favored the Commonwealth. All Chapman and Worrell had to do was ask the jury to picture Yeardley Love dead, and then picture a drunk and angry Huguely shaking her.

But now the defense has its own set of emotions to anchor its case. Instead of a bloated and dull lacrosse player, or a skinhead-looking convict with empty eyes, they can ask the jury to picture a young man in an oversized suit finding himself in the middle of his worst nightmare and breaking down. The prep school ex-athlete sitting stoically in court taking notes is no more, replaced by a young man who, in turns, cries and looks scared out of his mind. In a week, maybe less, he’ll find out whether he’ll ever be free again. We may never find out exactly what happened in Love’s apartment. The one immutable fact in the case is that Love is never coming back.

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