Huguely jurors to decide between levels of homicide during deliberation

Though George Huguely V is charged with premeditated murder in the 2010 death of his University of Virginia girlfriend, Yeardley Love, attorneys following the case say it's unlikely that the jury will find he intended to kill her when members begin deliberating Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va., Circuit Court.

But that doesn't mean he won't be found culpable. Even his lawyers have said that Huguely, who admits drunkenly assaulting Love, bears responsibility for her death.

Just what he might be guilty of — along with the time he's assigned to serve in prison — will depend upon the jury's interpretation of key evidence, which includes an hourlong videotaped statement that Huguely gave to police. In it, he describes a violent scene at Love's off-campus apartment, but also appears to show genuine surprise and even sorrow upon learning his on-and-off girlfriend of two years had died, suggesting that he hadn't known the degree of her injuries when he left her.

It's a complex, circumstantial case that requires the jury to consider gradations of homicide — from intentional murder to involuntary manslaughter — and the effect of alcohol on his decision-making, lawyers said, particularly when passions are high.

Love and Huguely, both lacrosse players who grew up in privileged, private-school circles, had a stormy relationship with prior incidents of physical confrontation and infidelity on both sides. Huguely, who's from Chevy Chase, previously put her in a choke hold, according to witness testimony. And Love, from Cockeysville, once whacked him with her purse. Each also hooked up with others on occasion, despite their mutual jealousies.

Huguely went to Love's apartment on the night of May 2, 2010, after a full day of drinking, to confront her about a North Carolina liaison, kicking in her bedroom door and setting a tone of aggression from the start, attorneys said.

"He's obviously going to be found guilty of some[thing]," said Chris Leibig, an Arlington criminal defense lawyer who's been following the case closely from Charlottesville. "Even though I believe the defense did a great job of eliminating the intent to kill, that doesn't mean he won't get a lot of prison time."

Huguely, now 24, is charged with six separate crimes, only two of them having to do with Love's death. The others involve robbery — he stole her laptop on his way out — and breaking and entering. And some of them carry sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

If jurors convict Huguely of a crime, they will quickly enter a second phase of the trial in which they're required to endorse a sentence under Virginia's legal system, one of a handful around the country that puts the sentencing onus on jurors in non-capital cases.

Both the defense and prosecution will present arguments and evidence, along with witness testimony. Then jurors will deliberate and return a recommendation, which must later — likely weeks or months down the road — be approved by the judge.

Witnesses are likely to include Love's friends and family, as well as Huguely's parents testifying that "he's a nice boy," said Lloyd Snook, a Charlottesville lawyer who's been sitting in on the case and blogging about it.

Huguely is also free to speak during this phase if he chooses. Jurors heard little about him during the trial, other than his drinking habits, which were described as excessive and out of control. Huguely declined to testify, leaving his police statement to speak for him. It made a strong impression on those in the gallery, where onlookers could hear the audio but not see the accompanying video.

"It shows George Huguely being extremely emotional and very human," Snook said. "On the other hand, it also shows him saying some things that aren't true, and that little bit of deception may upset a lot of jurors."

Huguely tells police he shook Love, and wrestled with her until her nose bled, and sounds as if he breaks into sobs later, once he's told she's dead. He also initially denies kicking in Love's door and taking her laptop, which he disposed of in a nearby dumpster, though he comes clean when pressed.

Commonwealth's Attorney Warner D. Chapman claims that Huguely took the computer to hide an email trail in which he says he "should have killed" Love after finding out she cheated on him. But Huguely's attorney, Francis McQ. Lawrence, said the message was hyperbole, akin to something he might say to his kids in a moment of frustration.

Lawrence urged the jury to return a verdict of involuntary manslaughter, which is considered a "lesser, included" crime within the murder charge and suggests that Huguely's role in Love's death was unintentional. It carries a prison term of between zero and 10 years.

Chapman asked the jury to find Huguely guilty of second-degree murder, which doesn't require premeditation and carries a prison term of between five and 40 years, or a type of first-degree, felony murder in which someone is killed in the commission of a robbery. A recent example of that in Maryland was the murder conviction of John Wagner, who was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of stabbing Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn to death during a holdup.

David Heilberg, the immediate past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said jurors are unlikely to find that the theft of the laptop is enough to support a finding of robbery connected to felony murder.

He also said that jurors may find that Huguely's inebriation compromised his ability for premeditated actions, though it will be up to jurors to figure out the unknown using common sense. Beyond that, he was unwilling to speculate.

Homicide charges against Huguely

•First-degree, premeditated murder: assumes intent and carries a prison term of between 20 years and life.

•First-degree, felony murder: involves homicide in the commission of a robbery. Punishable by 20 years in prison to life.

•Second-degree murder: often defined as an assault that ends in murder. It carries a prison term of between five and 40 years.

•Involuntary manslaughter: An unintentional, reckless killing punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

SOURCE: Court records

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