Just days before UVA graduation in 2010, Charlottesville—and the Washington, D.C., area—reeled with the news that fourth-year lacrosse player Yeardley Love was found dead in her apartment and her former boyfriend, George Huguely, had been charged with first-degree murder.
After a two-week jury trial in 2012, Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in 2015, and Huguely filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in January 2016. On August 10, Judge Rick Moore denied Huguely’s petition.
“Not a surprise,” says legal expert David Heilberg. “A very small percentage of habeas petitions succeed.”
A writ of habeas corpus is a civil lawsuit that alleges the petitioner is being wrongfully imprisoned. It typically hinges on errors made during the trial and inadequate counsel—in this case by Fran Lawrence and Rhonda Quagliana, arguably two of Charlottesville’s top criminal defense lawyers.
Huguely’s petition claims his rights to a fair trial were violated when jurors were given a dictionary during deliberation to look up the definition of “malice,” an element in a second-degree murder conviction. Voluntary and involuntary manslaughter were also options for the jury.
Moore rejects the dictionary allegation from one juror because 10 others said in affidavits they had no memory of a dictionary in the jury room. “I cannot find a preponderance of evidence that the event occurred at all,” writes Moore.
During the trial, witnesses testified that Huguely had been drinking all day May 2, 2010, and was staggeringly drunk when he went over to Love’s apartment, kicked in her bedroom door, and stayed around eight minutes, according to the downstairs neighbor, who heard one thump on the floor during that time.
His petition claims defense attorneys botched determining his blood-alcohol level, which would have led the jury to determine Love’s death was from negligence or accidental.
Moore didn’t buy that argument and called it “Monday morning quarterbacking.” He writes that it is “naive to think that when a jury hears a person had 25 to 40 beers in a relatively short period, over one day, this would produce leniency. I believe that is sheer speculation, and contrary to common sense.”
The more substantial complaint from Huguely was that Quagliana emailed one of the defense expert witnesses about a prosecution witness’ testimony.
“I agree that the violation of the rule on witnesses…was deficient performance,” writes Moore. But he says he doesn’t believe that because an expert witness wasn’t allowed to testify on the effect of CPR on Love, that would have changed the outcome of the trial.
And because that was the only instance he found “where trial counsels’ actions fell below the standard,” he rejects the argument that defense screw-ups accumulated enough to warrant a new trial.
Says Moore, “As is commonly iterated, a defendant is entitled to a fair trial by competent counsel, not to a perfect trial by perfect counsel.”
Lawrence and Quagliana did not respond to a request for comment.
Heilberg says, “What it really comes down to in the end is Fran and Rhonda are great lawyers and the only ding is in talking to a witness.”
Huguely was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing August 17, which became moot after the judge made his ruling.
Huguely’s mother, Marta Murphy, says in an email, “After waiting for a ruling for over two years and then finally being granted two days for evidentiary hearings, with more than 20 witnesses subpoenaed and George’s transportation order signed, we are very disappointed with the court’s recent ruling.
“The jury clearly struggled to interpret the definition of malice and used a dictionary for a better understanding. Coupled with George’s counsel making some serious mistakes,” she writes, the jury was prevented “from hearing expert medical testimony that was critical to understanding Yeardley’s superficial injuries and ultimately what caused her death.”
Those errors kept the jury from reaching a manslaughter verdict or even an acquittal because it didn’t get to hear testimony that Love did not die from blunt force trauma and that a hemorrhage in her brain was caused by CPR, according to the petition.
Huguely believed Love was alive when he left her apartment, and during his police interview, he repeatedly expressed disbelief upon being told Love was dead, says the petition. His attorneys maintain that Love’s cause of death was accidental asphyxia stemming from her BAC of at least .16 and being found face down on her bed.
In 2012, Love’s mother, Sharon Love, filed a civil suit against Huguely, which she nonsuited in June.
In yet more court proceedings, a federal judge ruled an insurance company did not have to cover Huguely on a $6 million policy Murphy and her husband had because the policy excludes criminal acts. In that suit, Sharon Love filed a brief that said because Huguely’s BAC was an estimated .38—the level that constitutes drunk driving in Virginia is .08—he was unable to form an intent to harm her daughter.
And that, says his mother, was what they’ve contended all along—that Yeardley Love’s death was accidental.
Huguely is now held at Augusta Correctional Center. His attorney and mother did not respond to a question about whether he intends to appeal.