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August 31, 2012

Drawing process lessons from high-profile sentencing after college killing in Virginia

The high-profile homicide case emerging from the University of Virginia, in which George Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder in the beating death of his former girlfriend Yeardley Love, culminated in a Virginia state sentencing proceeding yesterday.  This extended ABC News report provides considerable sentencing details:

A Virginia judge today sentenced convicted University of Virginia murderer George Huguely V to 23 years in prison for the beating death of his ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love.  He will serve 23 years, plus one concurrent year for the grand larceny conviction, ruled Judge Edward Hogshire of Charlottesville Circuit Court.  He also ordered three years of probation after the 23....

Huguely's attorneys told reporters outside the court that they plan on appealing both the conviction and the sentence. "Our client, Mr. Huguely, remains optimistic," the attorneys said.

In a statment, the Huguely family wrote, "Today is a sad day for our family.  The past twenty-eight months have been the most difficult in our lives.  We love George and will always support him."  They maintained that Love's death was "an accident with a tragic outcome," and said that, "Yeardley will always be in our hearts."

Love's mother and sister, Sharon and Lexie Love, also released a statement in which they thanked prosecutor David Chapman and everyone who helped them through the past two years.  "We find no joy in others' sorrow.  We plan to work diligently through the One Love Foundation to try and prevent this from happening to another family," they wrote....

Huguely's attorneys asked a Virginia judge today to consider reducing the former University of Virginia athlete's sentence to 14 years in prison, from the 26 years recommended by a jury.  The judge cut the recommended sentence by three years.

The prosecution and defense both called multiple witnesses to the stand for the sentencing, including former classmates, Huguely's aunt and a priest.

Rev. Joseph Scordo said he has visited Huguely in jail every Monday for a half-an-hour for the past two years. Scordo described Huguely as "spiritual" and said the two spoke freely about "faith, prayer, life, religion, family, UVA, sports." Scordo said he has never asked Huguely about the night of Love's death, but that Huguely frequently says, "I want the truth. I want the truth to come out. I have a lot of hope in Him, in God."

The prosecution's witnesses painted Huguely as a violent young man who struggled with his temper and alcohol. Huguely's former lacrosse teammate Gavin Gill told the court that he vividly remembered waking up to Huguely on top of him in bed, beating him up after he had left a party the previous night with Love.

The jury recommended 25 years in prison for the second-degree murder conviction and one year for a grand larceny conviction resulting from an allegation that Huguely stole Love's laptop computer.

Huguely's defense attorneys wrote that sentencing guidelines for convictions of second-degree murder and grand larceny "considering Mr. Huguely's negligible criminal record" recommend a sentence of 14 to 23 years.  "Beyond the obviously tragic outcome, there are no facts in this case sufficiently aggravating to warrant a sentence above the low end of the guidelines or a sentence inconsistent with those imposed across the Commonwealth for like offenses," the defense wrote.  Court documents filed on Wednesday by Huguely's defense team include numerous personal accounts from family and friends praising Huguely and asking for leniency

Huguely killed Love, 22, in a drunken rage in May 2010 just weeks before she was to graduate from the University of Virginia.  Both Huguely and Love were star lacrosse players on the university's elite teams.  Huguely faced six charges, including first-degree murder, in Love's death.

Over 10 days in court, jurors listened to testimony from nearly 60 witnesses and saw a video of Huguely's police statement, graphic photos of Love's battered body, and read text and email correspondence between the two.  Though charged with first-degree murder, the judge gave jurors a menu of lesser charges they could from: second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense denied that Huguely was in Love's room the night of her death and was involved in an altercation with her.  They differed on the severity of the encounter and whether Huguely was directly and intentionally responsible for Love's death.

Though I am not well-versed in Virginia sentencing procedures, it is my understanding that the sentencing judge here could not have increase Huguely's sentence above what was recommended by the jury, but rather only had authority to reduce the sentence. And it appears that advisory sentencing guidelines (including, I believe, an evidence-based risk assessment instrument) provided recommendations to the judge (along with arguments from the parties, of course) as to whether and how much he might reduce the sentence below the jury's recommendation.

Without making any judgments on the Huguely sentencing outcome, I have to express great respect and confidence in the Virginia state sentencing process because of all the perspectives that get brought to bear.  The jurors and judge who heard all the trial evidence along with additional sentencing information both have a significant and independent role in the process, and the final sentence is informed not only by arguments from the litigants but also by advisory guidelines reflecting systemic and evidence-based judgments by the Virginia's elected officials and its expert sentencing commission.  At least on paper and as a fair and transparent process, this seems like a pretty darn good sentencing decision-making system all around.

August 31, 2012 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The Virginia system also is a large driver of plea bargaining, because D's do not want to face jury sentencing. They believe (correctly) they have a better chance with the judge.

This is not personal experience as I don't practice in the Virginia state system, but it's the pretty common thought here.

Posted by: Def. Atty. | Aug 31, 2012 11:50:18 AM

One other clarifier about Virginia sentencing: Virginia, like the federal system, has abolished parole. The only reduction available is up to 15% off for good behavior. I mention it only because a number of commenters on the Huguely story in other fora have been under the mistaken impression that he could become eligible for parole. He can't.

Posted by: Def. Atty. | Aug 31, 2012 11:54:06 AM

"At least on paper and as a fair and transparent process, this seems like a pretty darn good sentencing decision-making system all around."

On paper, maybe, but my understanding is that the reality is that it's moderately unusual for judges to substantially modify the jury's sentence (which is not informed with guidelines), with the fairly inevitable result that very few cases are decided by juries at all. According to the Virginia sentencing commission (http://www.vcsc.virginia.gov/2011AnnualReport.pdf), only 1.5% of felony cases were adjudicated by juries, vs. 10% by bench trial and 89% by guilty pleas. Here (http://crimlaw.blogspot.com/2004/08/no-jury-trials.html) is a report from a public defender, who is now a prosecutor, who says that it would be "probably malpractice to recommend a jury trial in the vast majority of cases." The Virginia system, in other words, turns the "right" of a jury trial into a sword for prosecutors.

Posted by: dsfan | Aug 31, 2012 12:02:46 PM

dsfan -- Those stats don't mean much without a comparison to other states without jury sentencing, though. Is the trial rate any higher there?

Posted by: Jay | Aug 31, 2012 12:44:25 PM

23 years? That's far too low. 40 or 50 would have been more appropriate. And I think that death would be appropriate as well.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 31, 2012 1:40:46 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with federalist. Not only does he deserve more severe punishment for beating a poor girl to death, but he is clearly a threat to others should he get out.

Posted by: alpino | Aug 31, 2012 3:40:27 PM

Virginia clearly punishes those who exercise their right to a jury trial. However, that doesn't make a good news story so sadly the rest of the world never finds out just how bad it is here. After a finding of guilt Virginia jurors learn that they must give minimum sentences dictated by the legislature and that they cannot reduce or suspend any of it. Prosecutors are permitted to suggest geriatric parole is a possibility and yet the defense is not permitted to tell jurors no one has ever been granted geriatric parole. Yes, a judge can reduce the recommended sentence but it is so rare it is ridiculous. In addition, the judge can, and will, add three years post-release supervision to the sentence so that the client can go back to jail for up to three additional years as punishment for having a jury trial. How do I know this? Seven years in the trenches as a public defender has taught me just how bad it is here.

Posted by: Stephanie Miller | Sep 2, 2012 6:53:02 PM

Virginian jurors actually have to adhere to sentencing laws passed by Virginians' democratically-elected General Assembly? Why, it's an outrage!

Posted by: alpino | Sep 3, 2012 1:56:55 AM

interesting! its great, I love this article very much including me and my friends very much because i got my desired information in your posting. keep it up and continue your work.

Posted by: College Essay Lesson Plans | Dec 1, 2012 6:36:47 AM

This is plainly good news! May the victims easily reach justice. This is a good sign.

Posted by: Kohlmeier Noll | Mar 6, 2013 8:57:56 PM

May the justice prevail!

Posted by: Schimke Barbee | Mar 7, 2013 4:49:11 AM

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