We wait in the sunshine, in the unexpected warmth of a late February day, for a sign from inside the courthouse that a verdict has been reached. The word verdict means, in it’s original Latin, “to say the truth,” but a legal verdict is the synthesis of 12 opinions into a single pronouncement.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman addressed the media during a rain-soaked press conference outside the Charlottesville Circuit Court after a jury had convicted George Huguely V of second degree murder and grand larceny and recommended a sentence of 26 years in prison, Wednesday, February 22. (Andrew Shurtleff/Zuma Press/Newscom)
No one else has to agree with it, and often no one does. Its only measure of truth comes from the fact that, once given, it can’t be changed. Unless the judge changes it, or there’s an appeal, or the case is overturned by new evidence. So maybe there’s not much truth in a verdict after all, not if we’re using the word truth the way that most of us usually do, which is as something permanent and essential.
A man dressed all in orange is leaning against the railing of the handicapped ramp smoking a cigarette. Throughout the trial, he’s been here raking leaves and emptying trash cans, a prisoner obviously, given a plum job outside the jail and far from his cell. There are about 20 cameras set up in front of the building, their operators lounging in chairs eating chips and drinking sodas. The prisoner leans and smokes, ignoring them. He’s been working here for seven months, most of that time spent with a lot less company when he stopped for a break.
“What do you think of all of this,” I ask, meaning all of the spectacle, the attention, the cameras.
“I think it’ll be hard,” he said, “for them to prove premeditation, with how drunk he was that night.”
Walking down Fourth Street to get lunch I pass two women heading the opposite direction. “I’ll tell you why I think he’ll get off …” one of them says, and I turn around as fast as I can to listen, but the rest of the sentence is lost.
The jury’s opinion is, we hope, the most educated and the most reasoned one available. It’s ultimately the only one that matters, but it’s hardly the only one on offer. During the two weeks I covered the trial, and in the days that followed, everyone I saw gave me their opinion on George Huguely, on his guilt and what his punishment should be. Everyone told me what they thought. Everyone asked me what I thought.
With the amount of media covering the story, it’s no wonder we’re all so informed about it. People don’t merely have an opinion on Huguely’s guilt, they can back it up with quotes from his arrest interview. They hold lengthy discussions on the nature of Yeardley Love’s brain injuries. They can tell you which juror cried and which one stared at Huguely as if she’d already made up her mind.
Every effort was made to keep the media from bringing this information to you. Cameras and all other electronic devices were banned from the courtroom, which led to journalists running outside at every break to grab their phones and tweet. Reporters in the overflow pressroom didn’t have to wait for breaks, they could step out of the viewing room whenever they wanted, and so the ban was ultimately a failure; every second of the trial, no matter how mundane, was communicated in 140 character bursts.
We have new media now, more of it, faster than ever before. But do we have better information as a result? Our opinions are largely formed by context-free facts delivered with little or no thought. Who has time to think? Certainly not the journalists racing each other to the crate of phones to see who can be the first to report what the jury ate for lunch. There was a time when you had to wait until morning to hear about the evening’s execution. If you wanted the news sooner, you had to go in person and watch the body hang.
A well-dressed older man is standing on the sidewalk watching the milling crowd of journalists.
“This whole case has really messed me up,” he said. He lost a daughter many years ago to illness, and subsequently began counseling parents who’ve lost children, many of them to murder.
“The parents have to deal with all of this one year or two years after their child’s death,” he said. “They have to go to trial, because what parent wouldn’t want to go to trial? And they have to see a slick lawyer in a suit talk about what a tragedy this all is as he tries to get the guy off.”
“I don’t like the word closure. That sounds like you’re closing a book and putting it on a shelf. I prefer ‘reconciliation.’”
This is what reconciliation is like for Yeardley’s mother Sharon: Sometime in the afternoon, three women from NBC sit on a bench in front of the courthouse, talking excitedly. Two of them are middle aged and the third is in her 20s. They haven’t been here for any of the trial; they’re part of the second wave of upper tier media and TV producers that has arrived just in time for the verdict. The three women are all well dressed, like they’re out shopping, which in a way they are.
“Sharon said she’d take a week to think about whether she’d talk or not.”
“She’ll probably take a month.”
“No, she said a week. It will probably be a week.”
“The girls will all probably take their cues from Sharon. I have all their contact numbers.”
Reconciliation for the Love family involves negotiating interviews. It involves being constantly photographed and seeing those photographs everywhere they turn. They’ll never be able to Google their names again, and they now find themselves using the phrase, “We’ve prepared a statement.”
What parents prepare for that?
Reading more than a few news reports about the trial feels like a waste of time. They’re almost identical. Did we really need 20 cameras to capture the same shot of George walking into court? How many journalists does it take to tweet the word “guilty”?
There’s barely any difference between what was said in the media before the trial and what was said after. There were no major revelations, no radical changes to the story. As the trial began, nearly all of the potential jurors said they already had an opinion. During jury selection, one of the people picked for the jury said he thought it was “an open and shut case.”
George Huguely didn’t speak at the trial. The footage from the police interview and the excerpts from letters and e-mails helped to humanize him somewhat, but our collective idea about what kind of human he is didn’t change. Going in, he was a drunk lacrosse player from a wealthy family who killed his girlfriend. Coming out, he was a bigger drunk, and we can now officially say he murdered his girlfriend, though it wasn’t premeditated.
At around 2pm, I’m sitting outside reading a book. A man and a woman who’ve been dealing with their own legal problems in another court sit near me and ask if they can smoke. She has pink hair and a tattoo on her neck.
“Do you think he’s guilty?” she asked.
“I think he’s guilty of something,” I said.
The man laughed. “I think he’s nice,” the woman said. “I talked to him in jail.”
“Don’t tell him you were in jail,” the man said. She ignores him and kept talking.
“I talked to him, but not about the case. He fed me canteen. His eyes had nothing in them. You know how some people’s eyes have nothing in them? They were pitch black.” She paused and took a drag.
“But he was nice.”
Guilty and not guilty
At 4pm a car slows down on High Street and the driver leans out the window. “They reached a verdict yet?” he asked. The cameramen mostly ignore him, a few shrug, and someone said “No, not yet.”
Across the street a TV news crew is interviewing a local defense attorney. The attorney has been in court every day of the trial, and hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinions. He goes down the line of TV cameras, one by one, telling them what he thinks the verdict will be.
Did I mention that everybody I see tells me what they think the verdict will be? On Facebook, on the phone, on the street, even over dinner at my parents’ house. Everybody tells me their opinion. Everybody asks me mine.
Late in the day, hours before Huguely is convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison, I suddenly stop caring about the verdict. I’m overcome by the urge to get up and leave, to go to Miller’s and have a beer and skip the whole thing. Why not? I’ve been over it so many times in my head by now, every possible permutation and outcome, that the element of surprise is long gone. I know the verdict already; I’ve heard it proclaimed on every street corner and in every coffee shop and so at this point I’d rather not know, I’d rather ignore it, because I’ll be expected to say something meaningful and I can’t.
I had the experience, but missed the meaning. The more I’ve learned, the more my ability to render judgment has become crippled. Whichever way the jury swings, nothing I can say will make a difference in the end or change anything. I can’t reconcile what was done to Yeardley Love with what they’re going to do to George Huguely. I’ve been firing words at the target as fast as I can, and so has everybody else. To what end? And what are we doing here anyway? To quote Johnny Rotten, it’s been a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.
I looked into his eyes and saw only blackness. And I couldn’t think of anything at all to say on Twitter.
But I didn’t leave. I stayed and heard the verdict read. I saw it through to the end, which turned out to be a cold and rain-soaked press conference on the steps of the courthouse. No one wanted to get wet, so we all stood behind the podium under the roof, where it was dry, but impossible to hear. Reporters bunched absurdly on Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman’s right side, thrusting tape recorders out while trying to keep their bodies in, desperate for any scrap of his voice. When Chapman was done, a few of the jurors emerged through the front doors and were immediately assaulted by bright lights and confusion, with no way out except through a gauntlet of journalists waving recorders and shouting.
“Sir, will you talk with us for a minute just down there?”
“Can you tell us why you voted the way you did?”
The jurors did, ultimately, tell us why they voted the way they did. It was not, they felt, a premeditated act, but it was a malicious act, the worst ending to a bad relationship. George Huguely V, who at 22 was already using alcohol to propel himself that much faster towards a dead end future, was not likely to change anytime soon. Perhaps, they thought, 26 years, 20 if you factor in time served and time off for good behavior, perhaps that will be enough for both rehabilitation and retribution.
For what it’s worth, I agree with them. Already there are those who feel otherwise, who are saying that he “got off” or that he should spend a lifetime in jail, subjected to whatever justice the penitentiary dispenses. But justice, as we practice it here, is as much about the process as it is the result. The jury listened to the evidence, every boring bit of it, and they wrestled with the meanings of words and the consequences of actions, and then they adjudicated. The Love family wants retribution, the Huguelys rehabilitation.
“We work in the dark,” Henry James said. “We do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.”
Life goes on.
The UVA men’s lacrosse team is ranked number one this year. In the 20 years that Dom Starsia has been head coach, the team has won four national championships and six ACC titles. In 2010, the year that Huguely was arrested for murder, seven other members of the team were arrested on alcohol charges. In January, coach Dom Starsia signed a five-year contract for $250,000 a year, with a $225,000 bonus in three years and a $150,000 bonus in five.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least three women are murdered by their husband or boyfriend every day. Three out of four Americans in a 2004 poll said they knew someone who was a victim of domestic violence. In 2009, singer Chris Brown was arrested for beating then girlfriend and fellow musician Rihanna. He punched her repeatedly, slammed her face into the window of his car, and choked her. In a 2009 interview, Rihanna said: “When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part… Even if Chris never hit me again, who’s to say that their boyfriend won’t? Who’s to say they won’t kill these girls?”
Three years later, with the Huguely trial underway, Brown was awarded a Grammy. He and Rihanna seem to be back together.