A year after the vigil for Yeardley Love, UVA unleashed a new wave of sexual assault policy reforms.
Liz Seccuro attempted to convince UVA officials that she'd been raped back in 1984.
File photo by Hawes Spencer
Although the 26-year sentence recommended for convicted murderer George Huguely may be winning acclaim, other aspects of the recent trial have dismayed a high-profile victim of violence at UVA, and she's speaking out about it.
In Commonwealth v. Beebe, Liz Seccuro pressed charges after one of the men who allegedly raped her in a fraternity house contacted her 21 years later to apologize. Six years ago, that case was decided in the same courthouse with the same prosecutors as Commonwealth v. Huguely, as well as the same defense team and even the same judge. But to Seccuro, there was yet another similarity, this one deeply troubling: an effort to transfer blame from a man to his alcohol.
"It's interesting that those very attorneys who defended both William Beebe and George Huguely used alcohol as the reason why their clients should be treated with mercy," says Seccuro, noting that in both cases alcohol wasn't employed merely to defend but to also go on the attack.
"Did I drink the night I was assaulted?" says Seccuro. "Yes. Did Yeardley Love drink the night she was murdered? Yes. I fail to see how that somehow would have exonerated a rapist and now, a murderer."
Seccuro recalls that Huguely's lead defense attorney Fran Lawrence, who had attempted to claim that a toxic brew of alcohol-plus-Adderall actually killed Love, closed his case by describing the 14th Street area near the crime scene as an alcohol-soaked "student ghetto." And in the jury plea for a light sentence, co-counsel Rhonda Quagliana noted that "George's drinking was out of control."
Published interviews indicate that even after Huguely jurors settled on a second-degree conviction, it was talk of overcoming alcohol that swung deliberations over the length of the term.
"I am surprised that the defense and jury focused so very much on alcohol issues and not on the underlying rage and violent bent towards women that served as the spark," says Seccuro. "Alcohol was only the gasoline."
Seccuro acknowledges that Huguely has an alcohol problem but contends that the judicial system– and particularly UVA– have allowed a bigger problem, violence, to go unchecked.
It was the fall of 1984 that Seccuro, then a first-year student, was attacked in what prosecutors later described as a gang rape. In 2006, the only publicly admitted transgressor, William Beebe, received a two-year sentence when pleading guilty to aggravated sexual battery.
"Violence against women at the University of Virginia has long been a look-the-other-way issue," says Seccuro, who, in the book she wrote about her own ordeal, alleges that she was dissuaded from obtaining a medical exam and from filing criminal charges.
She has said that after getting contacted by Beebe and reading about the efforts of other UVA women– particularly Annie Hylton McLaughlin and Kathryn Russell– she made another attempt to find justice.
However, she says she's discouraged to learn of Huguely's prior bouts of violence: fighting a Lexington police officer, allegedly attacking a sleeping teammate, and allegedly attacking Yeardley Love with his hands two months before her death.
"The trial brought up so many feelings for me," says Seccuro, who supports the verdict and sentence. "In the end, though, nothing will bring Yeardley Love back to her family. Mr. Huguely will be released from prison while young enough to pursue a life of promise, should he choose to. Will the University culture change at all now that the cameras are gone? Time will tell."
From her home in Alexandria, Seccuro followed the Huguely trial via dispatches on Twitter and says that what she read of his police interrogation video stunned her and should have let the jury realize they were hearing from a domestic abuser: "I just went over to talk to her." "I kicked in the door." "I didn't touch her." "She banged her head against the wall." "I may have touched her neck." "She was standing when I left." "I threw her on the bed and left."
"They could see the lies he told," says Seccuro.
There's no evidence that Love– allegedly placed in a choke-hold by her eventual killer two months earlier– ever approached authorities to complain about Huguely. But in the wake of the May 3, 2010 killing, the General Assembly passed legislation making it easier for unmarried people to get restraining orders against alleged aggressors. The move unleashed a torrent of such protective orders– a 15-fold leap after the law took effect– according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"This is not a case about pretty people, lacrosse, privilege or alcohol," says Seccuro. "It's not a case about the University of Virginia 'ghetto' that Fran Lawrence so awkwardly stated. This was a case about domestic violence, plain and simple."