Playing defense: Legal eagles prognosticate on Huguely strategy
George Wesley Huguely V is not the first UVA student to be charged with murder.
In 2003, Andrew Alston was charged with second degree murder for stabbing local firefighter Walker Sisk to death on the Corner, and many were stunned when a jury sentenced him to three years for voluntary manslaughter.
So what can a shocked community expect when Huguely eventually comes to trial?
The Hook checked with a couple of top gun defense lawyers to see how they'd defend the young man who made a statement to police that he'd had an altercation with victim Yeardley Love, kicked her door in, and shook her so hard that her head repeatedly hit a wall, and then took her laptop when he left.
Rule number one: Hire the best lawyer money can buy.
Many high-profile, well-heeled defendants charged with serious crimes in Charlottesville head to St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, and that's where Huguely–- or, more likely, his family–- turned. Attorney Fran Lawrence showed up in Charlottesville General District Court with partner Rhonda Quagliana at Huguely's May 4 bond hearing. Lawrence did not ask for bond and instead got a June 10 preliminary hearing date.
"Fran is a fabulous lawyer," says John Zwerling, the Alexandria attorney who defended Alston and more recently, got an acquittal for Raelyn Balfour, the woman charged with involuntary manslaughter when she forgot to remove her nine-month-old baby from his carseat when she went to work at the JAG School.
After the hearing, Lawrence read a statement that Love's death was a tragic accident. Says Zwerling, "I won't second guess him. I would think he has information that the intent of the client was not to kill her, and that it was accidental.
"What is accidental?" muses Zwerling. "If you slap someone and they fall and are killed, the intent was not to kill. It could be manslaughter. The slap or punch might not be accidental, but the death was not intentional."
"Fran is an excellent lawyer," agrees David Heilberg, who successfully defended a 13-year-old in the notorious 2006 smoke-bomb plot in which four teens, some of whom didn't know each other, were charged with planning to blow up local high schools.
However, Heilberg wouldn't have gone with the accidental death statement. "I don't like to comment on pending cases," he says. "If you lay it out there, that sometimes limits your options."
One problem, says Heilberg, is that it lets the commonwealth's attorney concentrate on refuting that theory. "If you throw that out there, and the evidence doesn't add up, it affects credibility," he explains.
Heilberg notes Lawrence's use of the word "confident" in the statement he made after Huguely's brief court appearance by video May 4: "However, we are confident that Ms. Love's death was not intended, but an accident with a tragic outcome," said Lawrence.
"I assume that may have been at the request of the client," says Heilberg. "I would have tried to talk them out of that."
While it may seem counter-intuitive, Heilberg doesn't want to hear a client's side of the story right away, and he says there's good reason for that. "I don't want them lying to me," he explains. "I want to hear the Commonwealth's evidence. I tell them not to talk to anyone, and when they do talk to me, to tell me the truth."
According to the affidavit for a search warrant, Huguely was advised of his rights and waived them before he spoke to police. How problematic is that for a defense attorney?
Heilberg says that both Charlottesville and Albemarle police routinely videotape interviews with suspects, and suggests there may be context for seemingly damning statements like Huguely's admission that he kicked through the door to Love's bedroom. "Maybe he fell," offers Heilberg.
It's typical for clients to say that the police officer didn't tell them their rights under Miranda, says Heilberg. "The only requirement for that is if they're in custody and want to make a statement," he says.
Heilberg, whose 13-year-old smoke-bomb client was interviewed without his parents and repeatedly told by police pre-arrest that he was not in trouble, has some insights on how the interview with George Huguely might have gone.
"They'll say you're free to go and are not under arrest," says Heilberg. The interview room at the Charlottesville police station is long and narrow, and the suspect is seated at a long table, with the police officer sitting between the suspect and the door. To exit, the cop has to move out of the way. "That's routinely held to be noncustodial," says Heilberg, which means the officer doesn't need to offer up Miranda.
And why would someone who has just committed a heinous crime willingly talk to police? "They come in voluntarily and think they can talk their way out of it," says Heilberg. "They don't know they're being recorded."
Although Huguely seemingly confessed to serious behavior when he told police that he had a fight with Love, shook her, and "her head repeatedly hit the wall," his attorney, Fran Lawrence, said, "Those affidavits aren't always right."
"You're not dealing with what [the defendant] said, but what the police said he said," concurs Zwerling, who illustrates with a scene from My Cousin Vinny in which the cousin, after robbing a store, is stopped by police and accused of shooting the clerk. The perplexed perp replies, "I shot the clerk at the store?" and that becomes an admission of guilt.
According to the police affidavit, after his encounter with Love, Huguely took her laptop. "That's not a good fact," says Zwerling, because it could appear to be an attempt to cover his culpability. "I'm assuming he did not call 911," adds Zwerling. "That's a bad fact. It indicates he didn't care whether she dies or that she's already dead."
In November 2007, 26-year-old Jayne McGowan was fatally shot by two men who picked her St. Clair residence for a robbery and absconded with a laptop and her car. When arrested, William Douglas Gentry Jr. and his cousin, Michael Stuart Pritchett, were both charged with capital murder for killing McGowan in the commission of a robbery.
Although he allegedly took Love's computer, Huguely has not been similarly charged with capital murder, which carries the death penalty in Virginia, and prosecutor Dave Chapman did not return a phone call from the Hook asking why.
"They could always amend the charge," says Heilberg. "In the city, they may not want to do it. It's hard to get a death penalty in the city. Charlottesville is not death penalty-friendly."
Some even consider Charlottesville a town where one can get away with murder, especially in the case of Andrew Alston, the last UVA student to be charged with murder. Not only did Alston have a well-known defense attorney–- Zwerling–- but he had the assistance of another attorney before charges were filed: his father, Robert Alston, who practices in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
When Andrew Alston was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, his father drove down the next day and had the girlfriend sign a statement saying that she'd punched herself in the face. And the night Walker Sisk was stabbed to death, Robert Alston was on the way down to Charlottesville–- before police arrested his son.
Like Huguely's parents, Robert Alston has gotten a phone call in which he learns his child is accused of killing someone, but says he has no insights to offer Huguely's family. "I don't know why you're calling," Alston tells a Hook reporter.
And although the murder of Yeardley Love has made national news, Alston says he hadn't heard of what's been dubbed the UVA Lacrosse Killing. Nor does he have any legal advice for a family involved in a fatal tragedy.
"I don't practice in Virginia," says Alston. "Why would I offer legal advice in Virginia?"
Zwerling, who's had success for his clients here, not surprisingly, loves Charlottesville juries. "They're bright, they're well educated," he extols. "People always say they can be fair. I think there's a better chance of that in Charlottesville than in other areas."
"A jury is a roll of the dice anywhere," says Heilberg. "If you get a perfect storm, it's Andrew Alston. Everything came together for that jury."
Heilberg was in Massachusetts the week following Love's death and watched the news on CNN. He notes that the time approaching college graduation is a rite of passage, an age at which young people are testing their ability to bond and to find a mate. "My sense is the relationship broke up, and the guy can't believe it," says Heilberg. "It's a worst-case scenario."
While Heilberg and Zwerling express high regard for defense attorney Lawrence, barber shop owner Robert Lee Bishop doesn't buy the tragic-accident gambit.
"I was at my barbershop when I heard him make the statement on TV," says Bishop of Lawrence. "I couldn't believe it. That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard from any lawyer. Is he telling the other UVA kids that if you beat your girlfriend upside the head and kill her that it's okay? They ought to disbar him for the statement. He should have said nothing."