Two and a half weeks after Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward Hogshire banged the opening gavel in Case No. 11-102, Commonwealth of Virginia vs. George Huguely, a jury of five women and seven men found the former University of Virginia lacrosse player guilty of second-degree murder and grand larceny. For his crimes, the jury sentenced Huguely to 26 years in prison. He had been charged in the beating death of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Yeardley Love. The 22-year-old Maryland woman, also a UVA varsity lacrosse player, died in the early morning hours of May 3, 2010. Huguely, from Chevy Chase, Md. was the only suspect. Within days of his arrest, his lead defense counsel, Francis McQ. Lawrence, termed Love’s death a “tragic accident.”
From the start, Huguely’s lawyers were hoping for manslaughter. No one disputed that Huguely’s fight with Love had led her to die alone, face down on a bloody pillow in the bedroom of her off-campus apartment. Throughout the trial, which began with 2½ days of laborious jury selection and ended after 10 hours of jury deliberations, the Huguely team maintained that he simply hadn’t meant to hurt her. What with alcohol and tempers and the way kids are today, things had sadly gotten out of hand for a couple who shared a turbulent history. Lawrence even went so far as to downplay his client’s ability to plot any wrongdoing. “He’s not complicated. He’s not complex. He’s a lacrosse player,” Lawrence told the court.
But the jury didn’t buy the “simple lacrosse player” defense. Huguely, they found, acted with malice. His apparent lack of compassion, says jury forewoman Serena Gruia, in her first interview after handing the verdict to Judge Hogshire last night, was a deciding factor in their decision. Gruia describes a methodical, but at times “intense” atmosphere inside the deliberation room of the downtown courthouse. The jurors, most in their 30s and 40s, took the high-profile case “with the utmost serious approach,” she says. In the end, it was Huguely himself, now 24, who convinced the jury of the willful cruelness in his heart. Viewing the videotape of his police interrogation, which was a central part of prosecutor Dave Chapman’s case, they found that “pretty much every opportunity he had, he lied first,” Gruia says. “He was covering his ass the whole time. He was not telling the truth on several occasions.”
The jury heard closing arguments on Saturday, Feb. 18, but deliberations did not begin until Wednesday, Feb. 22. Huguely faced six felony charges, including first-degree murder and other counts related to the stolen property.
When the jurors returned, they were ready to work, Gruia said. And by about 6:30 p.m., they had reached their verdict.
But how did they do so? How did they arrive at a sentence of 26 years? What evidence weighed most on their minds? What arguments were most compelling? What did they discount? How, in the end, did they decide?
The facts of the case are these: Huguely and Love were at the end of a two-year relationship. He was getting drunk as many as four nights a week, to the point where his teammates were considering an intervention. The prosecution pointed to a previous incident when, drunk, he’d put Love in a chokehold. A rival lacrosse player from the University of North Carolina had rescued Love. Unable to recall the episode, Huguely wrote to Love later that “alcohol is ruining my life.” After that, Love slept with the UNC player and taunted Huguely about the other man’s superior sexual performance. On another occasion, she wrongly suspected him of texting with a couple of visiting girls, so she hit Huguely upside the head with her purse. The defense made much of these mutually uncontrolled outbursts. The prosecution emphasized an email that Huguely sent to Love in which he wrote that after she slept with the UNC fella, “I should have killed you.”
In the early hours of May 3, after consuming by his own estimate as many as 20 alcoholic drinks, Huguely, insistent on seeing Love, kicked a hole in her locked bedroom door after she told him to go away. Weighing by then at least 209 pounds, the 6’2” Huguely “wrestled,” as he put it, with the much-tinier Love. He told police he tossed her on her bed with no reason to be concerned for her condition. He took her laptop computer and returned to his apartment where he told no one what had happened, though a friend testified that his demeanor seemed changed. He also lied to friends about where he’d been. The state’s medical experts testified that Love might have remained alive for as long as two hours following the beating that left her brain severely damaged. Love’s roommate found her later that night and once police determined they were in the midst of a crime scene, she sent them looking for Huguely. Interviewed for more than an hour, he claimed he’d entered her room through normal channels, but continued to refine his account until at last he admitted that he’d kicked in the door, fought with her, and absconded with her laptop. Finally, when police informed him that she was dead, he broke down in disbelief.
“We had two big argument points in the jury room,” says Gruia, one being the nature of the computer theft and the other being related to the difference between second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The distinction the jury had to parse was between malice, which is a factor in second-degree murder, and the heat of passion. “Part of the instructions we had were that inherent in malice are deliberate, willful, and cruel actions. With several academics on the jury, there was a lot of stress on words, at some times maybe too much.”
Ultimately, the jury ruled out the “heat of passion” clause that characterizes voluntary manslaughter. Speaking to police, Huguely said that Love had told him to go away. “There has to be some reasonable provocation from the victim or from another party to allow heat of passion to come into the situation,” says Gruia. “We didn’t feel there was any provocation from Yeardley. She said ‘Go away.’ We tossed around the question, ‘Was that enough provocation?’ We decided that a reasonable person of reasonable mind hears ‘Go away’ and they do not kick down the door. There is a degree of safety you should be able to assume by locking your door in our society.”