Wednesday morning, the jury in the trial of former University of Virginia men's lacrosse player George Huguely will begin deliberations on six counts related to the death of UVA women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love. The jury is considering charges that include first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery, burglary, statutory burglary and larceny.
The charges stem from Love's death on May 3, 2010. Love's body was discovered by her roommate at 2 a.m., at which point the roommate called 911 and reported that Love may have suffered from alcohol poisoning. When police arrived, they discovered multiple physical injuries to the body. They interviewed Huguely, who was Love's on-again, off-again boyfriend at the time. Huguely lived next door and told police that he and Love had been wrestling in her apartment that evening, but that he had not done anything so vicious as to kill her.
The prosecution argued that Huguely entered Love's room late in the evening while she was sleeping. In the days prior to Love's death, Huguely reportedly emailed her in a rage about her having slept with another man. They contend he assaulted her in a jealous fit and slammed her head against a wall repeatedly. After the repeated blows, Huguely grabbed Love's laptop and left her bleeding until she eventually died.
The defense has presented a variety of arguments, with the most recent being that Huguely and Love had an altercation and she hit her head against a wall, but that blow was not sufficient to directly cause her death. Rather, they have raised numerous possible explanations in the hope of raising reasonable doubt as to Huguely's intent and what damage he caused. Defense medical experts have suggested numerous possible explanations for the end result. These include suffocation after being thrown into her pillow, a brain hemorrhage due to a fatal combination of alcohol and Adderall, and even CPR-induced swelling and bleeding in the brain.
Although Huguely is charged with first-degree murder, the court has given the jury several lesser charges they could elect to choose from in their final decision. These include second-degree murder, felony murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Due to Huguely already having served 21 months in jail, if he is convicted on one of the lesser charges, he could go free almost immediately. However, the more serious charges could result in life in prison.
Each of the murder and manslaughter charges is differentiated in part by the specific mental state associated with the crime. The Virginia legislature has defined what constitutes each killing offense:
First-degree murder: Murder, other than capital murder ... by any willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing ... is murder of the first degree, punishable as a Class 2 felony (20 years to life).
In this case, to be convicted of first-degree murder, the jury would have to believe Huguely not only planned to go to Love's apartment with the intention of killing her, but also that he planned out how he would kill her. It does not need to be the exact specifics of the killing, but there is a specific premeditation and planning of the murder.
Second-degree murder: All murder other than capital murder and murder in the first degree is murder of the second degree and is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for not less than five nor more than 40 years.
Second-degree murder is arguably the most nebulous of the murder charges. It is an intentional killing, but there is not the planning that happens with first-degree murder. It ends up as a bit of a catch-all murder charge.
Felony Murder: The killing of one accidentally contrary to the intention of the parties, while in the prosecution of some felonious act ... is murder of the second degree and is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for not less than five years nor more than 40 years.
The idea of felony murder is that a killing that occurs in the midst of the commission of a felony is an intended consequence of that felony. If the jury decides Huguely was guilty of taking the laptop and it was worth more than $200, they could also find him guilty of the felony murder charge even if there had been no intent to kill Love.
The state does not provide specific definitions for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. However, the common definition of voluntary manslaughter states that it occurs when there was no previous intent to kill, but the killing instead happened "in the heat of passion." The circumstances of the situation require it to be of the kind that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed. In Virginia, voluntary manslaughter is a class five felony, which means one to 10 years in jail.
If the jury were to believe this was a blow-up fight that happened in the moment, they could elect to convict Huguely on the voluntary manslaughter charge. Some of the testimony has revolved around their reported multiple fights and the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship. If the jury believes he was in a rage the previous day, his decision to kill her a day later would not justify voluntary manslaughter, and in fact could lead more toward first-degree murder.
Involuntary manslaughter refers to an unintentional killing that results from reckless or criminal negligence. The primary difference from voluntary manslaughter is no intent to kill ever develops. This is also a class five felony, punishable by one to 10 years in jail.
The defense has acknowledged that Huguely was in the room before Love died and that there was an altercation. If Love's death occurred in some way related to their altercation, the jury could find him criminally negligent or reckless and justify a conviction of involuntary manslaughter. By the end of the trial, the defense more or less conceded that Huguely did bear some responsibility, but there was enough blame to go around that involuntary manslaughter is what they should decide.