Juror 206: A sad tale of two Charlottesville cases

By Jennifer Niesslein

At the Charlottesville Circuit courtroom, the jury box faces outward toward the audience. I sat in that jury box on the afternoon of February 7 as a potential juror for the George Huguely trial. Before me were the families of Huguely and Yeardley Love. All of them looked somber and grief-stricken, except Love’s sister. She stared hard at Huguely. The entire scene felt uncomfortably intimate, like crashing a stranger’s funeral. I didn’t know where to look.

Over 160 residents had been called for this trial. By the time the judge was ready to see my group, there were three slots in the jury pool of 28 left. The judge and clerk randomly selected a portion of us to be interviewed under oath. To my right was a woman I’d chatted with during the long wait. Her daughter had lived a block away from where Yeardley Love died, and on the morning before any details had been released about Love’s identity, this woman had been frantic until she spoke to her daughter. “I am not going to be on that jury,” she said as we waited. “I am not going to see those autopsy pictures.” Now she looked flushed.

The judge asked us a series of increasingly pointed questions. One woman knew the defense attorney well; she was dismissed. Some of us had experiences with violence. All of us had had media exposure to the case. Some of us said the exposure had led us to form an opinion. I was not one of those people.

I didn’t find the case fascinating; I found it tragic and horrible and all too common. I didn’t understand the media frenzy. The city blocked off some streets. To get to the courthouse, I wended my way past rows of media vans with huge satellites on their roofs. There were people in the courtroom who were honest-to-God spectators.

***

Less than a month before, I’d been summoned for another case as a potential juror, eerily similar to the Huguely case. Barry Bowles was charged with killing his wife. Both Huguely and Bowles had had prior run-ins with the law. Like Huguely, Bowles pled not guilty although he had confessed to police that he’d physically hurt his lover. Rachel Bowles’s family, like Yeardley Love’s, formed a cadre of well-dressed women. Like Huguely, Bowles looked somehow smaller than you expected an accused killer to look.

The two cases were different, but the most major difference was in who the victims and the accused were. Huguely and Love were attractive university students, each on a winning lacrosse team. They were from white and well-off families. The Bowleses were working-class, middle-aged, and black. Rachel Bowles had worked at Arby’s and more recently at a local dry cleaner. She was well-loved by her family and community– her online obituary lists many condolences– but the only picture I’d seen of her was a small black and white from her obituary.

There were some local reporters at the Bowles trial, but the jurors weren’t asked about their media exposure to the case. There was very little media to have been exposed to.

***

I was willing to give Huguely the benefit of the doubt. But I also couldn’t pretend that I hadn’t read that he admitted to kicking in Love’s bedroom door and beating her head against the wall. The last question that the defense attorney asked us as a group was whether we believed that a defendant was more likely to be guilty just because he’d been charged with a crime. We all paused.

“It’s hard to say,” I said. “There are a lot of charges here, and you can be guilty of some and not others.” Meaning: You can be the sort of monster who beats people half your size, but it’s still conceivable that you didn’t kill her.

The bailiff led us to the jury room. After a wait, he poked his head in and asked for Juror 206 and then gestured me to the witness stand, which faces the judge. I was almost giddy with relief that I wouldn’t have to answer questions facing those solemn families. The attorneys asked me questions. How much weight would I give expert witnesses who were compensated for their time by the defense? Did the genders of the victim and the accused make a difference? Did I have any pre-formed opinions?

“I believe that Mr. Huguely hurt Ms. Love,” I said. “I assume the case will be about whether those injuries caused her death.”

Maybe I should have emphasized that I could be impartial. Maybe I should have flat-out said I know what’s at stake: people’s lives– possibly Huguely’s, possibly the lives of the women in his future. I was willing to keep an open mind here, but my knowledge of the details put me in a tough position, wedged between a strong belief in a fair trial and my own good common sense.

The court interviewed three more jurors, all men. They took them and dismissed the rest of us.

***

I walked back to my car in the dark. I’d missed at least a half-day’s work and an afternoon with my son. I was worn out. I remembered one would-be juror telling me that she’d been having dreams in which her teeth fell out– she thought it was a dream about loss of control over her schedule. There were scores of us who’d been affected by this trial.

It was because of our collective fascination with people like Yeardley Love and George Huguely, I realized. We wouldn’t have this media circus or this bizarre jury elimination process if we all simply cared about domestic violence. We were whipped up into this mess because of what the case represented: our fetishes of the pretty, the athletic, the rich, the young– the people that most of us aren’t. It was the Kate Middleton and Prince William event of domestic violence. By contrast, the Bowles case was more akin to our own weddings: of deep importance to loved ones but no strangers were crying in the streets.

The thought saddened me as I headed back to the nearly empty fourth deck of the parking garage. I nervously clicked the unlock button on my key fob again and again, the beep-beep sound echoing off the concrete. I just wanted to be home. Home meant safety and comfort. At least for me.
~
Jennifer Niesslein is the co-editor of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and author of Practically Perfect in Every Way.

Read more on: George Huguely

29 comments

Well said Jennifer.

In the end, we can only hope, that some will be changed for the better- from the knowledge of these events.

Good article!

I enjoyed this!

I've been called to jury duty too for this round but in a county - not the City of C'ville. It is a draining process no matter what the case is before you.

As for the suprise so many have about the media on this case - lest we forget Operation Equinox http://www.readthehook.com/89511/equinoxer-activist-making-soldier-war-a... or the Haysom Murders http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/21202.html?

UVA Students, The University of Virginia which is a top university, medical school etc., two students about to graduate who were on top college teams - this is the reasoning behind the media frenzy here folks.

Agreed that the middle class, "average Joes" do not make the same impact in our media, maybe it should. Maybe this case will be the diffence for the next young woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship? Maybe this will give us all pause when or if we see something that is not right to step forward to help?

Honestly, I couldn't be objective for this case. And in all honesty, even one court official told me (not of C'ville) that they expect, as I do, Huguely will probably "walk away". Even those working our Justice System know there is no justice in it.

I think this speaks to how disconnected Americans have become as a whole. Objectively, what does it say about our society that there are huge outpourings of energy for people who are of the right status, and countless cases that involve people who are just as important, just as valid as human beings, go completely unknown? What does it say that a LOT more energy is expended around cases like the Huguely/Love than is expended around positive events?

The day news became for-profit was a sad day for our society, in my opinion.

He wanted to kill her he killed her
Her hitting him with a purse after he tried to choke her is being used as a violence emanating from her seriously! This kid is so deranged he states the conversation wasn't going well as he hold her neck and after breaks her door down her nose is bleeding as he hits her head against wall and he didn't cause anything

He cries not when forensic experts describe the graphic scene of her body not when her sister or mother testify Shows no emotion
Until he is heard confessing on tape
He cries the media laps it up poor judge he feels yea he was crying as he realizes he shouldn't have talked without his daddy

And you have Jean kazorias of ctv making excuses for him
He was a raging angry brute who gets what he wants
He wil not get justice 1 st degree
He will be out before 30 take over daddies business marry have babies and abuse his wife
Yeardley is dead under ground portrayed by his family as not an angel
She was an angel and now is watching the trial in disgust

I too was summoned as a juror for both these cases. And I too was dismissed from the Huguely jury pool because I had an opinion-and that it was he was guilty.
Barry Bowles got second degree and 15 years. His lawyers wanted voluntary manslaughter.
But Huguely's lawyers want involuntary manslaughter, an even less serious charge.
Yeardley Love's life is not worth any more than that of Rachel Bowles. But it is not worth any less either- and that is what his lawyers are saying by calling it an "accident." It would be a travesty of justice were he to end up with less than Barry Bowles received.
But it could happen.

Whether we believe that a defendant was more likely to be guilty just because he’d been charged with a crime?

I believe the majority of the population does indeed believe a person is guilty once they have been charged with a crime. We no longer have an "innocent until proven guilty" society. You're guilty now, until proven innocent. If you read the many replies in the numerous threads of discussion about this case, those posting the replies have already made up their minds that Huguely is guilty.

The thing that troubles me most.... if the same people who post these replies in these numerous threads of discussion about the Huguely case were to be called in for jury duty, would they make the same remarks face to face with a judge? I think not. Some of them will want to be on the jury, they would be the commonwealth's dream come true if selected to serve on the jury.

If I had been called in as a prospective juror I would tell the judge, "Don't put me on this jury judge, I will pick and choose the police officers that I know to be good honest people and those that I have personally witnessed commit perjury in a courtroom in the past!" I would be the defense team's dream come true.

There was scant coverage of the Bowles trial. But at least from reports there are similarities.
The jury convicted him of second degree murder and given Ms. Love's brutal injuries leading to her death, and the known actions of Mr. Huguely I would say this sentence is appropriate for him as well.

It took the jury three hours Friday night to decide Bowles' fate of second degree murder. They had a choice between first degree and second degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

Barry Bowles is accused of stabbing his wife, Rachel Ann Bowles, to death during an argument at their apartment in September 2010. Rachel was stabbed 16 times, including a fatal wound to the heart.

Bowles admits that he did it, so the matter before the jury is to what degree he is responsible. The defense says Barry Bowles was out of his mind with rage, does not remember the killing, and should not be convicted of first-degree murder. Prosecutors say Bowles should be held accountable.

http://www.nbc29.com/story/16566533/bowles-murder-trial-day-three

I believe before reading all this coverage I could have had an open mind were I to have been called, but now I could no longer say that, even though my opinion is only based on media reporting and not the full testimony that allows the jurors to make, I hope, a better informed decision.

Nancy, let me ask you a question, you can serve as a juror here in answering this question sorta. If Barry Bowles stabbed his wife 16 times and killed her, and only received 15 years in prison, what type of message will it send to the community if Huguely gets 60 years in prison? A white life is worth more than a black life? We don't care if blacks kill each other off, but we won't tolerate it when whites are involved?

Not attending the trial personally, the reporting that I found most convincing of Huguely's guilt, and attempt to cover-up his actions, was Mr. Spencer's audio reenactment of the tape of Huguely's testimony to police, hours after the murder. It will be interesting to know if the tape was a turning point for the jurors as well. It certainly is some of the most compelling evidence to date.

http://www.wina.com/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=5682435

But what if he Huguely gets less than 15 years ? A weak point of our criminal justice system is the sentencing phase, I believe.

If Huguely is convicted of second degree, the maximum sentence is 40 years. I think what people are worried about is that he will not get a long sentence, that there will be a manslaughter conviction and he could be out in a matter of months(like Andrew Alston).
I think this is the first time I have seen someone complain that a white defendant might get more time than a black one. Usually,people bring up the fact that a black defendant is more likely to get a longer sentence than a white one, especially a well-to-do white defendant(like Andrew Alston).

True, Nancy.

And HollowBoy, correct. But, like I said, what message are we sending if Huguely gets 60 years? Mrs Bowles died a very violent death at the end of a sharp knife. While the end result was the same, at least Yeardley Love wasn't stabbed 16 times.

You never know what a jury will do. There's no rhyme or reason to most of their verdicts when compared to one another side by side.

Great piece of writing.

There is nothing like jury duty (or sometimes even just being called to jury duty) to bring out one's connections to the rest of humanity.

@Gasbag - I would never sit on a jury if I was following the case and already made up my mind. I'm also usually not chosen because I have a legal education (not a JD). Eight years ago when called to serve, I felt rather good that I was dismissed with a UVA Law student - before all the hyperbole with UVA Law Students.

However, evidence could be introduced at any point to change my mind too. Your right - one can never predict a jury's verdict, even attorneys can not. I think we all hope there is some sort of consistancy in verdicts. We shall see - another week and more testimony and then it goes to the jury.

Good article. Would there be more open minds (and roads by the courthouse) if we all weren't so absorbed with the pretty, the athletic, the rich, the young?

Bobbi wrote:
The day news became for-profit was a sad day for our society, in my opinion.

Bobbi, when was it NOT for profit? Newspapers were never free. Am I missing something?

Once again, Steve has hijacked yet another thread and made it all about him.

Once again, Steve has commented that far too many people sit in courtrooms and believe every word every cop says. This is actually a pretty good policy when speaking of 95% of cops, they have no reason to lie. The other 5% belong in prison with some of the people they have wrongfully helped to convict.

This thread can never be about Steve though. He hasn't murdered anybody yet.

@Gasbag - I thought about it and if you gave me a choice of dying at the end of a knife (stabbed 16 times) or being beaten and left for dead but living for about 2 hours as my body fought to breathe etc - I'm pretty sure both were pretty horrible deaths.

Now, if you gave me a choice of who would inflict it on me - I choose a US Marine let them beat me to death - they know how to kill within 3 seconds. That is what they are trained to do in hand-to-hand combat. One, two, three - dead. More merciful IMO.

@ Cville Native - I've been thinking about the Jens Soering/Haysom case as well. As a child in Roanoke at the time, I remember it well, and there was quite a media frenzy around it - especially for the time period.

I think the Huguely case does have many similarities to that case in the reason for the intense media focus. First the UVA connection, UVA is known as a top university and college students aren't the type of people you'd expect to kill others. Also the wealth and status of the families - the Haysoms were known to be wealthy and Mr. Soering's status as a diplomat certainly added to that element. And the domestic nature of both cases, perhaps....although different, there do seem to be many similarities.

The Soering case had cameras in the courtroom though. In Roanoke, they would play it during the day and then re-run the day's proceedings at night. And this was pre-OJ. I'm thankful there are no cameras in this case....although I admit I'd probably watch if there were.

@Kate - I agree about most of what you state but there are a number of students at UVA and other similar colleges who are not those with the so-called silver spoon. As one who went back and obtained my degree as an adult (though we had legacy at UVA) my sibiling and I were not from the wealthy families but perhaps middle class. I knew of students who were in debt to student loans, working while at UVA and living on ramen noodles and tuna fish. I'm sure with the economy as it is there are still many that do this to obtain an education. In fact, I would venture to state there are more students like that at UVA and other colleges than those who have Mommy and Daddy paying all their bills.

@Cville Native - Oh, I completely agree, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that all UVA students (or even the majority) are wealthy. I am an alum, and from an average family.

I just mean that the Huguelys obviously are wealthy. The Haysoms were wealthy. I assume Jens Soering's family was wealthy as well, but even if they weren't super wealthy, the diplomatic connection provided some cache that made the crime/trial of interest to the media nationwide.

I think that's a lot of the reason for the media coverage. None of these people (Derek and Nancy Haysom, Elizabeth Haysom, Jens Soering, Yeardley Love, George Huguely), at first glance, are people that you would "expect" to be murder victims or murderers.

Thanks for printing this story. It really shows what most will never admit. The only reason the Huguely case is getting any play is because the cast of characters involves a pretty white girl and hansome wealthy athlete.

I forgot about the Haysom Trial. Why was it televisied?

@quit the bickering - The Soering trial was one of the first (if not the first) televised in Virginia, as an "experiment." It was very high profile, considering that Soering's case came several years after the murders because he fought extradition in the UK after being arrested there. During this time, Elizabeth Haysom had already been convicted and sentenced, so there was a lot of publicity leading up to Soering's trial. I was a child then, and I know it got a lot of regional attention, although I'm not sure how much attention it received nationally at the time. I know that a lot of my parents' friends watched the trial on our local tv stations.

The jurors I like are the ones who say "We all agreed that the defendant was guilty, but we didn't think the prosecution legally proved it, so we had to return a not guilty verdict", like they're all legal experts and the prosecutor was just some random guy they found on the voter rolls.