On Saturday, a trial that had been moving so slowly it hardly seemed to be moving at all suddenly rocketed forward so fast we got whiplash. The day began with a two-hour delay, and ended with closing statements, and in between we watched as the last cars of the defense team’s train went careening off the rails.
Things started going badly on Thursday when defense attorney Rhonda Quagliana called in sick and the whole day was canceled. She was still sick on Friday, and her partner, Francis Lawrence, struggled through a few witnesses before calling it a day. Both Judge Hogshire and Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman were pushing for the trial to continue, and Lawrence agreed, despite registering a formal complaint on behalf of his client that the trial should be postponed until Quagliana was well enough to continue.
The decision to carry on was baffling. The idea that Huguely would be forced to continue without one of his attorneys, someone who had spent two years preparing his defense, struck most of us as absurd and patently unfair. Chapman was applying a lot of pressure. “The Commonwealth,” he said, “is being harmed with every passing moment.” Judge Hogshire was also pushing for speed, constantly reassuring the jury that they would do everything possible to finish on time.
“Why the hurry?” the members of the press wondered. We wanted the trial to be over because we had deadlines and sore asses, but Huguely’s future was on the line. How is justice served by forcing him to go on with only half his defense team? It’s a first-degree murder trial, why rush to judgment?
Quagliana rallied and was in court on Saturday ready to start, only to have the Commonwealth throw a serious monkey wrench in the works. With the jury absent from the room, Chapman produced a series of emails between Quagliana and the defense’s three main medical witnesses, Dr. Jan Leestma, Dr. Ronald Uscinski and Dr. Jack Daniel. At issue was Virginia’s “Rule on Witnesses” which states that witnesses can’t be given any information about other witness’s testimony during the trial. The emails show the defense’s experts discussing testimony given by witnesses for the prosecution, and seemingly being told what to say.
Lawrence tried to say that it was all a mistake. “Email has changed the way we communicate,” he said, as though he just didn’t understand this new fangled technology. It was also revealed that Leestma and Uscinski have been testifying together for 15 years and had dinner together Wednesday night. “This is very troublesome,” Hogshire said, “I wouldn’t have expected this from counsel.” But he allowed Dr. Uscinski to testify, provided he stayed away from any of the information discussed in the emails.
Lawrence and Quagliana came out of it looking sleazy and stupid. Uscinski testified that Love’s brain showed none of the contusions, bleeding, or skull damage that comes with significant head trauma. But on cross-examination, Chapman showed a picture of a head that had been hit by a speedboat. The person died, but their brain was just as undamaged as Love’s. Dripping with contempt, Chapman pointed out that Uscinski made $200,000 a year testifying in court, all but calling him a liar.
And then, at 2:25pm, the defense rested. It was so sudden and unexpected I wondered if I was hearing things. Back in April of 2011, it was announced that Lawrence and Quagliana had subpoenaed 20 witnesses, but now they were done after calling only eight. Did they truly believe they’d made their case? Or were they feeling pressure to finish before the holiday weekend?
Closing statements started at 2:55 and didn’t end until 7pm. Chapman was emotional, sounding at times like he was close to tears. There were a few last minute changes in The Commonwealth’s case. The idea that Love’s head hit the wall has been dropped for the defense’s claim that her head hit the ground. More importantly, they’re asking the jury to look at second degree murder instead of the first degree premeditated charge. The felony murder charge, also first degree, is still on the table.
Watching Lawrence give his closing statement was like watching a punch-drunk boxer up against the ropes, desperately trying to anticipate the blows with his one good eye. I’ve been unimpressed by his performance since the beginning, and although I realize I’m not a lawyer, neither is anyone on the jury.
During his closing statement, Lawrence displayed not a drop of eloquence, and he was so tone deaf I nearly lost my mind. The prosecution, he told us, just doesn’t understand the way these crazy kids lived. Love barged into Huguely’s apartment and hit him with her purse, and he kicked a hole in her locked door because he wanted to talk. “That was not out of line,” Lawrence said, “for the way they communicated.” While trying to show that Love wasn’t a helpless waif, he dropped this gem: “She’s not a victim of abuse.” Really Mr. Lawrence? I think you meant to say that “she wasn’t a victim,” because saying that a dead girl found covered with bruises is not a victim of abuse seems like a stretch.
But the craziest moment was when he referred to the 14th St. area as a “20-something ghetto of these young people.” He later called it, “A men’s and women’s lacrosse ghetto,” and “Charlottesville’s student ghetto.” Using a word predominantly associated with poor minorities to describe a bunch of preppie kids is truly bizarre and evidence of how completely out of touch with reality the man is.
Throughout the trial I wondered why the Huguely family had chosen a local attorney and not some D.C. powerhouse. There are guys up there who would eat this case for breakfast. Were they looking for some local advantage? Or could they just not afford anyone better? If I were the Huguely’s at this point, I’d want my money back.
The trial isn’t over until the jury sings, and there’s enough evidence of reasonable doubt that Lawrence and Quagliana could still pull some sort of victory.
I’ll have some more thoughts on the end of the trial in Tuesday’s C-VILLE. On Wednesday, the jury will begin deliberation, followed by the sentencing phase, all of which will be covered on the blog, and then one last story in the print edition.
Read the Huguely Trial Blog on the verdict and sentencing here.