Huguely trial puts spotlight on Charlottesville

One day when I was driving to the courthouse for the George Huguely trial, I ended up behind a cab that had not just its phone number painted on the trunk but this invocation: "Metaphors be with you."

A couple of turns later, I was following an SUV with a vanity plate making a pun of its own: RKOLOGY.

I don't remember how many blocks it took me to figure that one out, but you know you're in a college town when even the cars are making bons mots.

We probably all know people who can never quite leave the town where they went to school. I get the appeal, the youthful energy, all the bookstores, concerts, sports teams, cafes and the brainy vibe that wafts from an elite campus. And I especially get it when it comes to Charlottesville, which all those best-places-to-live guides get absolutely right.

There are a lot of theories going around about why the trial of Huguely for the murder of Yeardley Love, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, has brought so much media attention to town. (Actually, I'm not so sure it has — while this no doubt will change once a verdict is imminent, during the past week at least, a sliver of the 200 media credentialed to cover the trial seemed to actually be here.)

It's because everyone involved is young, attractive, privileged, etc., etc. It's because of what it says about the role of class, the world of lacrosse, the culture of the hooking-up generation, etc., etc. The metaphors are indeed with us.

I sense a small part of it, at least for those who live in this part of the country, is the stark contrast of so brutish a crime in so genteel a locale. While the students here are far past strolling campus — I mean, The Grounds, as they're called here — in tailcoats and buckled shoes, there are vestiges of the lofty "academical village" that the school's founder envisioned.

That would be the person the rest of us know as the third president of the United States, but here is referred to as Mr. Jefferson. I had thought that too was part of a bygone era here until Saturday morning when I heard a local anchor call him that in introducing a story about his nearby estate, Monticello.

I have no idea whether Huguely loved Charlottesville or saw much of it beyond the athletic fields, his classrooms and Boylan Heights, the bar down the block from his apartment on 14th Street and the favored hangout of the lacrosse set. His Charlottesville was probably not the tour book Charlottesville of Founding Father estates and boutique vineyards.

But as I listened to the testimony this week, I couldn't help but wonder why Huguely, weeks away from graduating, seemed to be in such a bad place. He seemed less like someone looking forward to what might lie ahead, than someone who wanted to hold on to what he already had.

His lacrosse team was playing its last game of the regular season. His relationship with Love, a Cockeysville native, seemed to be heading away from the on-again and toward the off-again, maybe for good.

And through it all, he was drinking crazily, and not, it seemed in a celebratory, spring-semester-of-senior-year way. His friends were worried, and indications were that Love was too; Huguely referred in one email to her saying she would get back together with him if he stopped drinking so much.

Instead, they had another fight, over her hooking up with another man, and it's unclear whether he had tried to cut back on what apparently has been an ongoing issue for him.

That very long day and night of May 2, 2010, sounded like a slow-motion train wreck, with Huguely having as many as 15 or 20 drinks before he was done. It's nearly unfathomable that someone wouldn't just pass out before getting into the double digits. But he did, and made his way to Love's apartment and kicked his way into her bedroom, where a couple of hours later she was found dead.

It is a terrible irony that today, after almost two years in prison awaiting the trial that now is nearing its conclusion, Huguely likely is as sober as he's ever been. I have to wonder how, in what has to be a clearer state of mind, he now processes what happened then.

I also have to wonder what a life sentence, possible should he be convicted of the most severe charges, must look like to a 24-year-old sitting in a jail cell in Charlottesville.

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