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February 23, 2012

High-profile example of (wise?) jury sentencing in Virginia

I have long thought that many sentencing reform advocates, especially in the wake of the Sixth Amendment Apprendi/Blakely line of cases, have failed to give enough attention to jury sentencing as a potentially valuable modern form for reform proposals.  Specifically, I see many potential benefits from a system that at least encourages jury sentence recommendations in all serious cases that go to trial.  And the latest high-profile (aka pretty-white-people) murder case now seems to provide a notable example of a sentencing jury demonstrating a special kind of case-specific sentencing wisdom.  This CNN story, headlined "Jury recommends 26 years in prison for former Virginia lacrosse player,"  provides these jury sentencing details:

A judge is considering a jury recommendation that a former University of Virginia lacrosse player be sentenced up to 26 years in prison for his role in the death of his ex-girlfriend. A jury returned the recommendation late Wednesday, hours after finding George Huguely V guilty of second-degree murder and grand larceny in the May 2010 death of Yeardley Love....

Judge Edward Hogshire is expected to sentence 24-year-old Huguely on April 16, at which time he can accept or reduce the jury's recommendation.

Outside the courtroom, Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Warner D. Chapman told reporters that "what we do in court is a very rough approximation of justice in any given case. "There's nothing that we can say that will make good the terrible and tragic loss to the Love family," Chapman said. "There are no winners in this case. There is nothing but loss everywhere."...

The jury did not agree with the prosecution that Huguely was guilty of first-degree murder, and it acquitted him on several other charges, including robbery, and breaking and entering to commit larceny.

Huguely has never denied he was in Love's apartment nor that they had a fight. At the center of the case were dueling portraits of Huguely, who prosecutors contend killed Love in a jealous rage while the defense argued the death was accidental....

Inside an emotionally-charged courtroom, Huguely hung his head and appeared to cry during his attorney's plea during the sentencing phase that directly followed the jury's verdict.

"George's decision and judgment were clouded by drinking, immaturity," attorney Rhonda Quagliana told the jurors. "It's not an excuse. It's not a justification. It's just a fact ... (at the time) George is a 22-year-old immersed in sex and alcohol."

Love's mother, Sharon, and sister, Alexis, both cried during their testimony in the sentencing phase, which saw two female jurors cry. "Every year that goes by, I'm afraid I'm forgetting a little piece of her," Sharon Love told the court.

Alexis Love told the jurors that not a day goes by that she doesn't think about what happened to her sister. "First, there's the shock. And then that wears off, and it becomes reality," she said. "...I've never wanted anything so much in life as I've wanted to see her face again."

February 23, 2012 at 03:29 PM | Permalink

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article: "Chapman said. "There are no winners in this case"

me: really, because I would say that the defense attorneys most definitely got a win for their client. The maximum sentence Hughley could have gotten would have been 60 years (40 for 2nd Degree Murder, 20 for Grand Larceny). 26 years (at most) is a long time, but compared to the LWOP sentence which would have come from a first degree murder conviction. Even if the judge doesn't suspend any time, Hughley is going to be free to beat up more women in about 20 years.

Needless to say this result is not at all typical - generally the jury based sentencing system in Virginia works to the defendant's disadvantage because it effectively can be used to force a guilty plea given the vast disparity between the statory sentencing range and the Virginia sentencing guidelines. When you are facing a 1 day to 60 day sentencing range if you plead guilty and get sentenced by the judge under the sentencing guidelines versus a 5 to LWOP sentencing range in the statue (and the jury has to follow the statutory range such that the lowest sentence a jury can recommend is the bottom of the sentencing range), the defendant has a big incentive to avoid the jury based sentencing. Because the prosecution can demand trial and sentencing by jury, the defendant often pleads guilty solely because of the sentencing consequences.

Erika :)

Posted by: virginia | Feb 23, 2012 4:38:17 PM

In Kentucky there is no statute of limitations for felonies (as in Va.), but the Judge is constrained to sentence a defendant to what the jury recommends, or a lesser amount of time. He can't go above the jury's recommendation. A former school teacher, a sexual predator, was prosecuted a few years ago in Lexington/Fayette Circuit Court, for repeatedly molesting a 14 year old girl in the 1970s. He is now in his mid-60s. The jury recommended a sentence of only 6 years, which the Judge imposed. At sentencing, the Judge expressly told the defendant that if he wasn't constrained by state law, he would have imposed a life sentence. So, yes, defendants can substantially benefit from jury (recommended) sentencing instead of being sentenced solely by the Judge. The victim was also sexually molested by a female teacher for several years. She pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the man, in exchange for a sentence that would not send her to prison. The Judge refused to accept a plea for the woman that didn't include at least some prison time. Thus, the Commonwealth's Attorney dismissed the felony indictment against the woman, and charged her only with a misdemeanor, thereby limiting how much time the Judge could give her. The same events underlying these criminal cases resulted in a $3.9 million civil judgment against the Fayette County School Board, more than 30 years after the fact. See, "Lynne Maner v. Fayette County Board of Education"(Ky.App. 2010) (unpublished). Unlike most short unpublished decisions, the opinion in Maner runs to 53 pages and makes interesting reading, if you have time. The statute of limitations in the civil suit was tolled because the former School Superintendent failed to notify law enforcement, after the girl's Mother met with him in the late 1970s and told him she believed that the teachers were sexually involved with his daughter. His internal investigation did not validate the sexual events, so the teachers kept their jobs and the abuse continued. Under Ky. law, it is a misdemeanor for any school official not to report suspected sexual abuse of students to law enforcement. In the past year, several teachers, two principals and a Superintendent have been indicted in Ky. for failing to notify law enforcement, as required by law.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Feb 24, 2012 12:18:14 PM

Huguely is a loser. He was an abusive boyfriend who couldn't stand that he was losing his girlfriend---so he kicked in her door and killed her.

He should consider himself lucky that he only got 26 years. In my view, his crime was every bit as bad as so many others that get death in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

He snuffed out her life--and he will one day be free. There is something seriously wrong with that.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 24, 2012 4:41:15 PM

Jim, Virginia law works the same way - the judge is free to suspend all or part of the jury's recommended sentence but cannot go over the sentence.

federalist, I agree with you about this case with one caveat - I'm not sure if Hughley's offense was in fact death elgible since Capital Murder charges under VA Code 18.2-31 would require an willful deliberate, and premeditated killing during one of the listed felonies (in this case robbery or burglary) and First Degree Murder charges under VA Code 18.2-32 could have been brought based upon a willful deliberate and premeditated killing or a felony murder theory as an unintentional killing during a listed felony (in this case burglary).

My belief is that Hughley probably got a break from the start - the allegations pretty clearly seemed to support a capital murder charge - but such charges were never brought and he only had to face first degree murder charges. Then he got a break from the jury which reached a legally contradictory verdict by convicting him of Second Degree Murder and Grand Larceny rather than First Degree Felony Murder during the Course of a Robbery. Then he got yet another break from the jury by not giving him the max. I just hope that he doesn't get yet another break from the judge - 85% of 26 years is about 22 years which means at worse he will get out when he is about 44. That is outrageous.

Anyone who cares about violence against women and fairness in the system should be outraged that this guy is getting a break due to being rich and White. There is simply no other plausible explanation for what happened here.

Erika :)

Posted by: virginia | Feb 24, 2012 6:15:57 PM

His victim was white also. My guess is that race had little to do with this.

This guy was a reprehensible loser. And the possessiveness is truly repulsive. He couldn't stand that she was leaving him, and so he got mad. Guess, what, George, there are other fish in the sea. It's a truism that will haunt him for at least the time he spends in prison.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 24, 2012 7:49:52 PM

While I agree that 26 years is not enough, I don't think the conviction of second degree murder is particularly surprising. In cases which involve two people who know each other with no weapons involved, premeditation and malice are not as tightly linked as malice and heat of passion. A jury can sort out premeditation fairly easily one way or the other, but will struggle with distinguishing malice from heat of passion. This problem for the prosecutor is much easier to see in cases involving two people of the same gender.

As to the sentence, if the case had been settled with a GP to second degree murder with no agreement on punishment, how much, if any, of the 40 years would the judge suspend?

Posted by: Fred | Feb 25, 2012 1:08:12 AM

Fred, its been a couple of days, but this article from the Charlottesville newspaper states that the normal sentence for the crimes he was convicted of is about 19 years - so with a guilty plea to 2nd Degree Murder and Grand Lacerceny he likely would have gotten less time.

http://www2.dailyprogress.com/news/2012/feb/23/some-think-huguely-sentence-should-be-higher-ar-1711710/

I do not believe given the allegations - and in fact what was proven in this case the prosecutors would have accepted a 2nd Degree murder plea - quite simply, it appears the the prosecutors proved 1st Degree Felony Murder during a Robbery, but the jury refused to convict on it and reached a compromise verdict.

erika :)

Posted by: virginia | Feb 28, 2012 9:43:11 AM

Erika:

I agree that the prosecutor would not agree to a GP to second in this case. I posed this hypothetical because there would likely be a loud public outcry if the judge did not give a full unsuspended 40 year sentence.

The advisory Virginia sentencing guidelines, as you note, is one reason, although I don't think the judge would have any problem explaining why he would not follow them. Another reason is that the judge would probably want a non-trivial amount of suspended time for parole/probation supervision purposes.

Also I don't disagree with your assessment on the felony murder theory. However, the jury was not instructed that they could infer malice from the use of a deadly weapon, but were instructed on the difference between malice and heat of passion. The amount of time the jury would spend sorting out malice/heat of passion, because of the pre-existing personal/sexual relationship, would serve as an anchor for their deliberations, which would make it harder, but not impossible, for them to move-up from second to first, even after they find malice rather than heat of passion.

Another hypothetical: two UVA frat boys who know each other get in an argument over some insult, and one kills the other with his hands in the victim's room. This is clearly voluntary manslaughter with the prosecutor having a very good chance of second. But first will be difficult, even on a felony murder theory, because larceny makes far more sense than robbery when the two people know each other and have had some periods of time in their past where they got along with each other.

Once again I agree the 26 year sentence recommended by the jury is not enough. I just think it was a difficult, but not impossible, task for the prosecutor to get the sentence this guy deserved.

Posted by: Fred | Feb 28, 2012 12:15:31 PM

I would be interested in folk's thoughts about why 26 years was not enough. In most industrialized countries he would have received much less. The discussion seems to assume that the sentence was too low as a given, without really examining the proposition or applying any rigorous analysis. Is that a problem with our system in general? Why the love for massive sentences in this country, relative to others?

Posted by: mark | Feb 28, 2012 2:15:56 PM

Fred, it probably depends if the judge thought that the conviction should have been for first degree murder and that the jury was wrong - in which case, the judge likely would have maxed Hughley out. Otherwise, you would probably expect a sentence at or near the guidelines range if the judge sentenced.

Mark, its actually a very reasonable and good question - given the existing law and sentencing schemes and the fact that federalist is right when he says that Virginia has killed people for doing what Hughley did - the 26 year sentence is out of line compared to other defendant's who committed similar conduct. But it may be that 26 years really is the proper sentence for all defendants like Hughley and the others are over punished. My objection to the 26 year sentence is that Hughley was a privileged jerk who got a major sentencing break compared to other defendants. Really, I was basing it based upon other Virginia sentences for similar crimes.

Erika :)

Posted by: virginia | Feb 28, 2012 6:02:34 PM

Interested in folk's (sic) thoughts Mark:

1) Americans care about life. We hold a Judeo-Christian philosophy on crime and punishment--though seemingly less each day.

Regarding the deserving innocent: we rescued the Bosnian Muslims (our military), the South Sudanese (our missionaries/aid workers), and the starving of Africa (U.S. private and govt. $$ have outpaced all others);

regarding the murderous offenders: "And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."

2)) Liberal/a-theistic Americans have steadily diminished the swift and frequent use of capital & corporal punishment, so retreating moderates and conservatives have clung to long sentences.

3))) As said in this blog, 'kindness to the cruel is cruelty to the kind'. As a scientific & inventive people, the land of Reed, Salk, and Damadian, we have long recognized the truth in Skinner's assessment that: β€œThe consequences of an act affect the probability of it's occurring again.”

For the rest of the industrialized world regarding the aforementioned: not so much, nowadays.

4)))) Our liberty: The favourable comparison of our revolution, declaration, and constitution to that of every other nation leaves us little reason to stoop to their lowly estate. They may have valid minor tips to share, but not generally.

"In most industrialized countries he would have received much less."
Jo, Norway? Aye, Scotland?

Most industrialised countries grant their law-abiding citizens less freedom and their convicted murders more freedom: one reason why after military tours and social calls to other industrialised and non-industrialised countries, I affectionately keep my citizenship here.

Posted by: Adamakis | Mar 1, 2012 10:22:15 AM

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