The Huguely Trial And The Search For Meaning

Below is today’s column on the trial of George Huguely for the murder of Yeardley Love (shown left).

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

25 thoughts on “The Huguely Trial And The Search For Meaning”

  1. @Mike S: Perhaps revenge is a stronger motivation than self preservation, but why would that be a successful human evolutionary trait?

    Revenge is a punishment, and in many psychological experiments people will choose to engage in punishment of “cheaters” even if it actually costs them money. In fact, in such experiments, such spiteful sacrifice is shown to reduce cheating and produce longer term income as a result.

    Revenge as a punishment works and the instinct for it survives for that reason; I suspect in this case alcohol reduced the ability to consider the consequences and the instinct took over. Evolution has not had time to eradicate angry murder, the amygdalae can still override the frontal cortex, especially an alcohol soaked one.

  2. Mike S: “Perhaps revenge is a stronger motivation than self preservation, but why would that be a successful human evolutionary trait?”

    Since societies of humans are more likely to persist than are loners, perhaps the possession of a revenge impulse works indirectly to maintain social cohesion, as a side effect of the way punishment is used against violators of social norms, but taken to an extreme level.

    The concept of “fairness” is a big deal in all societies (even observed among non-human animals), but it is an empty concept in the absence of penalty (case in point: investment bankers). Revenge is merely penalty taken to the next, albeit pathological, level.

    As long as both revenge and unfairness are held in check, societies can continue to function, and this has clear evolutionary value.

    1. IKathleen & Tony,
      Both answers were helpful and certainly better than anything I can come up with. Commoner also adds a piece to the puzzle in that I would think that some are just born to kill. As JT intimates we tend to look for reasons when perhaps even the perpetrator can’t articulate why.

  3. Mike S.
    Is this a “modern” phenomenum? It has either persisted (if genetic) or has exogenic causes. Of course the Greeks knew and wrote of it. But, it’s said that principles were ranked higher than family responsibilities in Homer’s time, i’ve (briefly) read. The hero in the Trojan war taking leave of his wife to immolate himself in hopeless combat for the sake of being enshrined in honor’s ranks. You know. on your shield or bearing it.

  4. This post really resonated with me. As an admitted watcher of “murder reality” shows like “48 Hours Mystery” I am constantly confounded why people murder those close to them and destroy their own lives in the process. Psychology really has no explanation for this and the reality is that the perpetrator rarely ever presents their reasoning. My only suggestion is that it is an act in many cases akin to suicide, which those in the Psychological field often attribute to being an essentially hostile act. Perhaps revenge is a stronger motivation than self preservation, but why would that be a successful human evolutionary trait?

  5. “We want to understand why a person did what he did — perhaps to reassure ourselves that we would not do the same thing.”

    I think there is also the wish to understand how to prevent becoming a victim ourselves, that is perhaps the stronger of the two. We all would like to learn from the mistakes of others, even if those others were blameless, because this gives a sense of control over our lives and safety.

    I’ve long believe that this desire to learn from tragedy is the reason behind the compulsion to examine car accidents when we pass: what, we wonder, can we do to prevent such a thing playing out in our own lives? For myself, this is the only (conscious) reason I puzzle over such things.

    PS: Blouise – I too have been stalked, so you have my sympathy. That experience led to many changes in my daily life that continue to this day. I wish you well in you own life.

  6. Blouise,
    I share your feelings with some of the same fear., but not the experience.

    An aside tho’, how many ask themselves the same most days.
    “I don’t understand myself”. That’s where the wise one or the therapist helps.

    Obvious ideas, but sometimes missed ones.

  7. “For Huguely, it took a broken relationship, taunting text messages and a lot of alcohol.”

    At one point in my life I endured the attentions of a stalker. The older, and very experienced detective assigned to me quietly advised me, “Don’t try to understand him. You don’t think like he does. It’s that simple.”

    He was right.

  8. Perhaps too many lawyers keep defendants off the stand. However, they are the ones speaking to them and listening to wild drivel. I dont think it was a huge mistake but I dont know how big Huguelys lies were. Was he victim to one of those Ellis Island name changes?

  9. We’d all like to think that there are knowable reasons for tragedies like this. Just like we all wish to think there is a reason for our existence on this tiny blue marble.

    In the words of the Dread Pirate Roberts: “Get used to disappointment, majesty”

  10. Alcohol has killed more than just relationship….. But words are known to do more damage than all of the alcohol and drugs combined….

    This is an unfortunate and tragic event that has changed everyone’s lives for the worse….regardless of whom you are…..what social economic background you hail from…..the damage will never end….

  11. The Love murder was the disasterously perfect intersection of excess, youth, arrogance, and alcohol overlain with jealousy and unremedied rage. There’s blame enought to go around to the perpetrator; all who observed but did nothing; those with good intentions who did nothing; and those who expected it to happen and did nothing. It’s really not particulary complicated and all too common regardless of class or setting.

    When people are taken out of their depths they lose their heads, no matter how charming a bluff they may put up.
    ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

  12. I am guessing there was another man involved that sent this guy over the edge. Great article Professor. But such a sad situation.

  13. A good column. Sometimes, there aren’t good answers. Sometimes, there aren’t any answers at all.

    As an aside, the 26 year sentence is a curiosity. What basis exists for the judge to decide that 25 years is inadequate to serve legitimate sentencing goals, but 27 too many?

  14. defense lawyer: …”insisted that Huguely “is not complicated. He’s not complex. He’s a lacrosse player.”

    But being part of the folks who ask, I’ll venture a prejudice:
    Lacrosse players are guys who like to play vicious sports, but who like to hide behind a “weird” exotic sport label. As for viciousness, ask the indians who used to balance the ball on axes. Lost too many good warriors that way.
    Another interpretation of prejudicial type is he was so weird, that after 5 minutes on the stand, the trial would have been terminated because of his mental incompetence. Reason for taking prison instead of menal care:
    In some families the former is preferably to the latter.

    All speculation of course.

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