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