George Huguely is guilty of murder. He went to the apartment of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, University of Virginia classmate Yeardley Love and, in a drunken rage, broke through her door, confronted her about infidelity, grabbed her, shook her, beat her and left her bruised and bloody. A jury in Charlottesville, Va., concluded that the killing was not premeditated, but jurors were not willing to accept the defense argument that it was an accident, or excused in any way by the 15 or more drinks Mr. Huguely had consumed that day. Jurors recommended that he be sent to prison for 26 years, longer than his life so far. That sentence may offer justice, but it brings no restitution. It does not bring Ms. Love back or make sense of the horrible events of that day.
There are many reasons this case captured the public imagination — the youth, privilege, promise and good looks of those involved; the connection to Maryland's tight-knit lacrosse community; the voyeuristic peek into life at an elite college; the horrifying nature of the crime itself. But there is also this: The Loves and Huguelys had, at least outwardly, done everything we expect to raise their children into successful, upstanding adults. They enrolled them in excellent private schools, nurtured their athletic talents and sent them to one of the best state universities in America. We feel so much for Ms. Love's family, and for that matter, Mr. Huguely's, because if such a tragedy can befall them, how can we know it will not happen to the rest of us?
We send our young men and women to college with the assumption that with their experience of freedom to make their own decisions, they will also learn the responsibility necessary to care for themselves and each other. All of the sordid details that emerged from Mr. Huguely's trial laid bare how imperfect that process is.
Mr. Huguely's friends testified that he got drunk three or four nights a week, neglected his studies and behaved recklessly and belligerently. He had two previous brushes with the law over alcohol. At a party, he drunkenly wrestled Ms. Love to the ground and put her in a choke hold. The details of Ms. Love's campus life must also have been difficult for her family to hear. She had maintained a two-year relationship with Mr. Huguely in spite of evident emotional and occasional physical abuse. The immediate impetus of the pair's final argument was a casual sexual encounter she had while on the road with her lacrosse team; and she, too, was drunk — with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit in Virginia — on the night she was killed.
What's worse, the couple's mutual friends knew how volatile their relationship was and knew that Mr. Huguely's drinking was out of control, but they did nothing. Mr. Huguely's friends considered holding an intervention, but they didn't. Perhaps that is too much to expect of college students. But it is not too much to ask why, after seeing him so drunk at dinner that day that he had trouble putting a wine bottle back on the table, his friends left him alone in his apartment to go on a beer run. Nor to ask why Ms. Love's roommates left her alone, drunk and nearly naked in their apartment, to go drinking some more. Had a friend stayed with either one of them, the night almost certainly would have ended differently, but the condition of each was evidently too commonplace to cause alarm.
The University of Virginia has taken some steps in the wake of Ms. Love's murder to train students to intervene in such situations, and the school has instituted an ongoing program of dialogue about campus problems. Ultimately, though, if any good is to come from Ms. Love's death, it will take more than a few seminars. It will require parents to realize that just because their children have left home does not mean they have grown up, and it will require students to realize that the cosseted world of a college campus does not free them from consequences.
The sad truth is that this story will quickly disappear from the national spotlight, and its power as a cautionary tale will fade. It is surely too much to hope that it will change a national culture. But for those who set foot on campus in Charlottesville, play on Yeardley Love Field at Notre Dame Prep, travel in the insular world of lacrosse, or see a bit of themselves in the Love and Huguely families, they can remember, and in doing so, they can take one small step toward making things right.