By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
9:11 PM EST, February 23, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
The last thing George Huguely V's lawyer said as he left the courthouse at the end of his client's murder trial this week was that he looked "forward to some corrections on what happened here."
It is unclear whether he thought mistakes had been made by the jury — which found Huguely, 24, guilty of second-degree murder and grand larceny in the beating death of Yeardley Love, recommending a 26-year prison term — or by the legal teams. The lawyer, Francis McQ. Lawrence, did not respond to a request for comment.
He will likely seek a reduced sentence at a hearing to be held later this year, and he could file an appeal based on perceived legal errors. But responsibility for the outcome of the trial probably rests with Huguely, legal analysts said.
"Both sides had flawed presentations," said David Heilberg, a Charlottesville attorney and former president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
But the jurors "did their job. They didn't hold anything against either side, from what I could see," Heilberg said. "They looked at the actual case and the evidence, which is what they're supposed to do, and they made their decision."
Some lawyers said the prosecution filed unsupported charges in the case, which involved University of Virginia students who grew up as prep school kids, Huguely from Chevy Chase and Love from Cockeysville. Others said the attorneys nearly put the jury to sleep with dull testimony from medical experts.
The defense offered no testimony to guide the jury toward a lighter sentence recommendation during that phase of the trial. Jurors could have recommended that Huguely receive as few as five years in prison or as many as 60.
One defense attorney, Rhonda Quagliana, caused delays because of illness and impropriety: She was sick for a day and a half and then admitted to having repeatedly violated a rule against communicating with witnesses, leading to a hearing and consequent limitations on defense testimony.
The judge was criticized by some observers for rushing the case. He kept jurors well past 6 p.m. some nights and scheduled a full work day one weekend, followed by a three-day recess to accommodate the court's schedule. Others called it efficient oversight.
"There's no question, if you ask these lawyers, 'Would they do something different?' they're going to say yes," said Scott Goodman, a Charlottesville defense attorney who followed the case closely in court.
But it is that way in most cases, he said, equating the regrets to Monday morning quarterbacking. They don't necessarily rise to the level of bad lawyering.
"It's a very high standard to show," Goodman said. He and other area lawyers who designated themselves Huguely trial watchers say grounds for an appeal are "skimpy" at best.
They ticked off a short list:
•One defense witness, a medical expert, was excluded because of improper contact with Quagliana, though it is uncertain how valuable his testimony might have been.
•Jurors were told of an incident in which Huguely had allegedly put Love in a choke hold, seeming to violate rules on introducing prior misconduct. But one lawyer said it was relevant because it showed Huguely's state of mind.
•The judge seemed to be in a hurry to keep court in session. This only matters if he abused his discretion in moving things along, however, and no one seems to think he did.
At the core of the case was a question of intent and what was in Huguely's mind the night of May 2, 2010, roughly three weeks before he and Love, a fellow lacrosse player, were to graduate. Huguely had spent the day drinking, as he often did, with his father and friends, and was admittedly drunk by nightfall, when he got the idea to confront Love.
They'd been fighting intermittently for weeks about each other's infidelities, and he decided to press the issue that night. What he wound up doing, by his own admission to police, was kicking in her door as she screamed at him. He wrestled with her, shook her, restrained her, then threw her on her bed and left, taking her laptop.
She had a black eye, a bloody nose and bruising to her body when she was found several hours later in her still-tidy bedroom about 2 a.m. May 3.
Those were the basic facts of the incident, and neither side disputed them. Huguely had given police a lengthy statement about the altercation, getting caught in several lies along the way, and showing what seemed to be true shock upon learning that Love was dead. He thought he was under arrest for assault, according to a recording of the statement.
The task for both the prosecution and the defense was to piece together a story about how Love and Huguely got to that point.
Commonwealth's Attorney Warner D. Chapman chose to build a case around multiple charges, including first-degree murder, which suggested Huguely plotted to kill Love; felony murder, which meant he killed her while committing a robbery; robbery; grand larceny; and two burglary counts.
"It all amounted to nothing, all the other [charges], the robbery and the felony murder. ... They were dismissed," Goodman said. He views the charges as piling on in a push by the prosecution to get Huguely to accept a plea deal.
Instead, they might have nudged him toward a trial, knowing those charges might appear disingenuous to a jury.
Huguely ultimately was convicted of grand larceny for taking the computer and second-degree murder, which assumes he did not set out to kill Love, but that he did commit a crime and act with malice toward her, resulting in her death.
"From the beginning, the defense needed to establish that Mr. Huguely didn't have an intent to kill, and they did that," said Chris Leibig, an Arlington defense attorney who watched much of the trial.
That makes a second-degree murder conviction a victory for the defense in some ways, lawyers said. The first-degree and felony murder charges carried potential life terms, and the lesser conviction is punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
But Lawrence and Quagliana had argued in favor of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum term of 10 years. To get that, they would have had to show that Huguely acted out of passion and in the heat of the moment rather than ill will.
"The real gray area of the case was between second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter," Leibig said.
He commended the prosecution for driving home the point that a reasonable, nonmalicious person would not have reacted as Huguely did.
Goodman criticized the defense for failing to counter that adequately. The "focus probably needed to be clearer," he said, with more emphasis on the "hot-bloodedness of the defendant's feelings."
He and others were reluctant to second-guess too much, though they shared a genuine surprise at one aspect of the case.
After the verdict, jurors moved into a second phase of the trial to recommend a sentence. They heard emotional testimony from Love's mother and sister, and then nothing from Huguely's side. His parents were widely expected to testify and had been excluded from watching the trial because of their role as potential witnesses.
"I absolutely expected at the very least" his father would testify, Goodman said, noting that Huguely had been drinking with his dad that day, and instead of reining him in, he had allowed his son to "go off the cliff." Goodman said Huguely's father could have taken the stand and said, "I share some of the responsibility. I should have been a father and told him that this is not the way to conduct yourself."
Huguely's father did not attend court after the verdict, though the defendant's mother appeared for the sentencing recommendation phase.
Heilberg said not putting defense witnesses on the stand might have been a strategic move. If defense lawyers put on "good-boy evidence," it would have opened the door for the prosecutor to contradict it, he said.
"That could have done more harm than good," Heilberg said.
Chapman was allowed to tell jurors of Huguely's prior convictions — for resisting arrest and public drunkenness — during the sentencing proceeding, but not to offer any details about the incidents, including information that Huguely had threatened to kill a female officer.
That would have changed if witnesses portrayed Huguely too favorably, lawyers said. Chapman then could have presented evidence showing otherwise.
The sentence recommendation, 25 years for Love's death and one year for stealing her laptop, was harsh by some standards and lenient by others, attorneys said. But most saw it as fair. A young woman is dead, at her ex-boyfriend's hands.
Still, Huguely's attorneys have vowed to ask for a reduction at a final sentencing hearing, which likely will be held this summer after a hearing in April to set the date. A priest has visited the young man in jail, as has a psychologist, Goodman said, which could indicate that the defense plans to submit evidence about Huguely's state of mind. His parents could decide to testify then, as could Huguely.
Whatever the final sentence, Huguely is likely to serve about 85 percent of it, if he gets time off for good behavior. Virginia does not offer parole.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun