What does George Huguely’s sentence say about the way we punish killers?

A bailiff escorts George Huguely into Charlottesville Circuit Court before Judge Edward Hogshire sentenced him to 23 years in prison for the murder of his sometime girlfriend Yeardley Love. Photo: John Robinson A bailiff escorts George Huguely into Charlottesville Circuit Court before Judge Edward Hogshire sentenced him to 23 years in prison for the murder of his sometime girlfriend Yeardley Love. Photo: John Robinson

In Norway last Friday, Anders Breivik was sentenced to 22 years in prison for killing 77 people and wounding 242. Six days later I sat in court and watched as George Huguely’s jury-recommended sentence of 26 years for the murder of one woman, Yeardley Love, was reduced to 23 years. American prison sentences start big and then dwindle as the years go by. With time served and good behavior, Huguely could be free in 20 years. Norwegian law does the opposite, starting small and adding time if a person remains a danger to society.

Breivik is unlikely to ever get out alive, but still, the fact that his original state-mandated penance is less than Huguely’s only reinforces my belief that trying to quantify the consequences of our actions is nonsensical. Outside of the courtroom, there’s no such thing as moral mathematics.

The New York Times reported that Norwegians as a whole were happy with Breivik’s sentence, even parents who’d lost children in the attack. Norway, it seems, views prison as an opportunity for rehabilitation, while in America it’s seen as a vehicle for retribution. Ever since the Huguely trial ended, I’ve wondered what good can possibly come from sticking a damaged young man in a tiny cell with only his anger to keep him company. It’s a deterrent, I guess. We think Norwegians are soft on crime, but then they barely have any crime. We’re the ones who wake up every morning to news of a new mass shooting.

A lone member of the jury that convicted Huguely was in court for the sentencing, sitting unnoticed at the back of the room. After it was over, I asked him what he thought, and he replied that although he wouldn’t have complained if Judge Edward Hogshire had upheld the jury’s recommendation, he felt the decision was fair.

“Are you glad it’s all over?”

“I don’t think it will ever be over.”

No, it ain’t over yet. Not by a long shot.

Two months after the trial ended, Yeardley Love’s mother Sharon filed a $30.5 million lawsuit against George Huguely and a $29.45 million suit against the State of Virginia, UVA men’s lacrosse Head Coach Dom Starsia, Assistant Coach Marc Van Arsdale, and Athletics Director Craig Littlepage.

By my count, Huguely is known to have attacked four different UVA athletes in the years leading up to Yeardley Love’s death, including one teammate, and yet no one, not the coaches who saw him every day, or the administrators who ran the athletic department, took any disciplinary action. This, in a nutshell, is the thrust of the lawsuit: Everybody knew George was violent, yet nobody did anything about it.

The defense, meanwhile, busied themselves over the summer with an extensive campaign of legal whinging, meant either to secure a new trial or to have the results of the old one overturned. It was pro forma argument at best, desperate and laughable at worst. A colleague who’d been with me in court for the whole affair asked in an e-mail what the defense could possibly be thinking. Even if the judge had granted a retrial, he wondered, did anyone think it would have ended differently?

Nothing I saw during sentencing dispelled the general air of incompetence given off by Huguely’s lawyers, especially Fran Lawrence, who often seemed like he’d just woken up and found himself in court.

Last Thursday, Huguely’s family and friends took the stand and told us about George’s essential goodness, but their testimonies consisted entirely of vague clichés (he was loyal, kind, a leader) and incoherent stories (he helped a kid finish a jigsaw puzzle, he stopped someone from falling/jumping out of a car), and were not only unconvincing, but utterly disconnected from the reality at hand.

Huguely’s lawyers had their strategy all wrong. The time to show us his humanity was during the trial. Nobody was ever going to be convinced of his innocence; what we needed to believe in was his tragedy. Instead, they minimized and belittled the damage done to Love in a misguided effort to convince us that Huguely didn’t really kill her.

The way the Love family looked at Huguely each day in court made it clear they were after retribution. Lawrence and co-counsel Rhonda Quagliana made the mistake of trying to prove that they didn’t deserve it. They should have let the prosecution win that point and redirected the discussion towards the idea of rehabilitation. Watching the videotaped interview made the morning he was arrested, seeing Huguely break down when he was told Love was dead; that was the best stuff they had. It was the only convincing evidence that Love’s death was in any way accidental, and the only sign that Huguely was anything other than a pair of fists and an overworked liver.

Back during the trial, as I sat in court listening to descriptions of Love’s battered body and watching Huguely stare dumbly at the nightmare that was his new reality, I invariably found myself thinking of a line from Dylan Thomas: After the first death there is no other. Anders Breivik will live out his days in a three room suite of a cell equipped with exercise equipment, a TV, and a laptop. One survivor of his rampage called this cushy treatment a sign that Norway was a civilized nation.

“If [Breivik] is deemed not to be dangerous any more after 21 years, then he should be released,” the man said. “That’s how it should work. That’s staying true to our principles, and the best evidence that he hasn’t changed our society.”

George Huguely won’t be treated so well, but then nothing about this case is going to change American society either. After the first death there is no other, I tell myself, but I know that it’s a lie. Every violent death feels like the first death, and in America, all you have to do is wait a while. It’s guaranteed that there will be another one coming.

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