The murder trial of George Huguely V was enough to make Nancy Grace hyperventilate in sheer anticipation. Huguely seemed to walk right out of central casting with a formula script for her nightly Murder Menagerie: attractive white girl killed by her equally attractive college star boyfriend shortly before their graduation from a top college. People wanted to know why the University of Virginia senior would kill his ex-girlfriend and fellow student Yeardley Love— trading in his privileged life for a lifetime in jail.
Yet when the verdict came in last week, there were many who expressed disappointment — not just with the verdict of second-degree (rather than first-degree) murder, but also the lack of insight into why Huguely committed this heinous act. The defense seemed intent on leaving that question unanswered. In his opening statement, his lawyer, Francis Lawrence, acknowledged the many questions about his client but insisted that Huguely “is not complicated. He’s not complex. He’s a lacrosse player.” That enigmatic statement did not satisfy the public — and probably not many jurors.
Beyond details of a drinking problem, Huguely would remain a mystery throughout the two-week trial. The defense not only decided to keep Huguely off the stand, but also failed to put on a single witness to speak for him in the sentencing stage. There was little testimony explaining, let alone excusing, his conduct. In the end, the jurors were given less information on Huguely than they would find on an eHarmony profile. “Just another lacrosse player” is not particularly helpful when the jury is looking at a kicked-in door, a history of abuse and a dead ex-girlfriend. It was not surprising, therefore, that Huguely received 26 years rather than the minimum of five years (though still less than the maximum of 40 years).
Martha Stewart lesson
Though many defendants choose not to take the stand for good reasons, it usually weighs against them, despite instructions to the jury not to take anything negative from a failure to testify. Martha Stewart learned that in her trial when she remained silent as her attorneys attempted to paint a nuanced picture of her motivation and thoughts. Jurors naturally wondered why a defendant did not speak for herself, particularly a powerful woman such as Stewart, when people were arguing in front of her about what she was thinking or feeling at the time.
We do not want to accept senseless death any more than senseless murder. There is an entire cable industry eager to supply the answers the public demands — regardless of the evidence. Thus, when Whitney Houston appeared to have drowned in her bathroom after a very public drinking binge, Grace went on the air to demand to know who “pushed her underneath that water? … Who let Whitney Houston go under her water?” Of course, it could not have been the tankerload of booze and pharmacy of drugs in her hotel room. Where there is a dead celebrity, there has to be a celebrity killer.
For jurors, the need to understand a murder is less sensational and certainly more redeeming. They will study every detail of a defendant, from his face to his clothes, to try to understand him in the absence of testimony. It is not simply a search for guilt or innocence. There is a great desire to understand a heinous crime on a personal level. Jurors (and many onlookers) want something more profound — and often less attainable — than simple proof of guilt or innocence. Indeed, the desire for understanding could be more about us than either the defendant or the victim. There is a deep insecurity that we may try not to admit — a suspicion that each of us is capable of murder under the right circumstances. For some of us, it takes more than others. For Huguely, it took a broken relationship, taunting text messages and a lot of alcohol.
Most of us live between lines of the law — resisting impulses great and small. We are then confronted by someone who breaks all the rules and shatters our assumptions. For Andrea Yates, it was a mother drowning her five beautiful children. For Huguely, it was ending the life of a beautiful girl as well as effectively his own life.
Suspect not like me
While we call it “unthinkable,” we think about it too much. We want to understand why a person did what he did — perhaps to reassure ourselves that we would not do the same thing. In the end, we prefer to find a monster behind the defense table. It allows us to say subconsciously, “He’s not like me.” Yet sometimes defendants appear all too normal. When Yates walked out of the courthouse, we saw a scared housewife and it was chilling. Why? Precisely because she was a housewife with a wonderful family and husband. When we looked at Huguely, we saw a lacrosse star graduating from one of the nation’s premier schools — the type of boy most parents hope their daughter will meet. We want it to be “complicated” because the simple truth is unnerving.
The fact is that many murder cases do not have any hidden truth. The search for meaning ends with just a boozed up kid and a dead girl. The death of Yeardley Love was indeed as senseless for Huguely as it was for the rest of us. There is no moral to this morality play. It is not complicated, and that is precisely the problem.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
February 29, 2012