New charges against George Huguely V, the former University of Virginia lacrosse standout accused of killing fellow student Yeardley Love, are likely to give prosecutors more flexibility in the case, legal experts said Monday.
In a brief hearing Monday morning in General District Court, Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman entered the new charges, including one for first-degree felony murder, for the record. He also said he needed more time to examine the more than 100 pieces of evidence gathered by police, and Judge Robert H. Downer Jr. pushed back a preliminary hearing scheduled for Jan. 21.
Josh Bowers, a University of Virginia law professor who specializes in criminal law, said in a phone interview that with a felony murder charge prosecutors would not have to prove Huguely went to Love's apartment with the intention of killing her. Even if he simply planned to take her computer, which he did before dumping it in a trash bin, the fact that Love died during an ensuing struggle would be enough to back up the charge.
"All that the prosecutor typically needs to show is that the person committed the underlying felony, met the elements of that underlying felony and a death was thereby caused. It provides prosecutors with an opportunity to get a murder conviction where they otherwise might not," Bowers said.
The 22-year-old Cockeysville woman, a graduate of Notre Dame Prep and a member of Virginia's women's lacrosse team, was found face-down in her off-campus apartment May 3 and badly beaten from what was later determined to be blunt force trauma to the head.
According to police, Huguely said that after entering the apartment and kicking in the door to Love's bedroom, he violently shook her during an argument and her head repeatedly struck a wall. Huguely told police that Love was bleeding from the nose and that he threw her on the bed before leaving. He also admitted that he took her laptop computer and tossed it in a trash bin outside.
Huguely, now 23, had initially been charged only with first-degree murder. He is now also charged with first-degree felony murder, robbery of a residence, entering a house with intent to commit a felony and grand larceny — charges that were first filed Friday.
Huguely did not appear in court or on closed-circuit television from jail, having waived his right to an appearance.
In a prepared statement handed to reporters outside the courthouse, defense attorney Francis Lawrence said that "these additional charges were not unexpected and we have been fully prepared to defend against them. We think it is significant that the amended charges acknowledge that there was no premeditation."
The first-degree felony murder charge, which is tied to the act of a person being killed during a burglary or robbery, signals that prosecutors might not believe they can prove premeditation on Huguely's part.
That could have led a jury to find Huguely guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter for what his lawyers could portray as a crime of passion.
The two students had what was described by friends as a stormy, on and off relationship. In the days after the incident, which attracted national media attention, Huguely's attorneys characterized Love's death as a "tragic accident" that occurred weeks before both were scheduled to graduate.
Though a first-degree murder conviction typically results in a life sentence, sentencing guidelines in Virginia for first-degree felony murder call for between five and 40 years in prison.
As a result of a continuance being granted, Huguely's Jan. 21 preliminary hearing will be pushed back as the prosecutor and defense attorneys conclude their investigations amid ongoing discussions that could lead to a plea.
Thomas Morrow, a Baltimore County criminal defense attorney, said that filing added charges could be the tipping point toward a plea.
"The more charges and the more time a defendant is facing, the more he is likely to consider cutting his losses through a plea bargain," Morrow said. "It also might be because there's so much public outrage for who the victim was. Just her picture — she was such an attractive woman and it was such a senseless case. That would further motivate the prosecution to make sure they've included all potential charges."