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Facing charges

A legal analysis of George Huguely

In December, The Washington Examiner reported there was a "growing consensus" that prosecutors would offer George Huguely a plea deal, which presumably would allow Huguely, charged with first-degree murder stemming from the death of Yeardley Love, to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for fewer years in prison.

Although plea deals can come about even during a trial, such a deal has yet to settle the murder case which has drawn national attention to Charlottesville and the University. A judge will determine Monday whether prosecutors have enough evidence to proceed with charges against Huguely, who has remained in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail for the past 11 months.

Talk of a plea deal, though, did not surprise some legal experts, who said most criminal cases end with a defendant admitting wrongdoing.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they come to a plea," said Anne Coughlin, a professor in the Law School who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure. "Each side is going to have to assess strengths and weaknesses of his case. And that's particularly true for the defendant. If he and his counsel think the state are going to be able to prove that he caused the death beyond a reasonable doubt, he knows he's in homicide territory somewhere. So he's going to be quite worried about the outcome after a trial."

Coughlin stressed, however, that it is difficult to make predictions based on the information which has been released publicly so far. Huguely's charges - including first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery, statutory burglary and grand larceny - suggest a wide range of possible outcomes for the former fourth-year College student and Virginia lacrosse player accused of committing one of the most sensational crimes in University history.

Premeditation\nIf Huguely's case reaches trial, lawyers on both sides will debate a number of different aspects of the case, but foremost among those will be Huguely's state of mind the night he entered Love's apartment May 3 last year.

After his arrest, Huguely, who formerly dated Love, told investigators he kicked open the door to her room and "shook" Love, allowing her head to "repeatedly hit the wall," according to an affidavit.\nHuguely's state of mind is central to determining the sentence he will receive because first-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, requires prosecutors to prove he willfully and deliberately murdered Love.

"Often times, the prosecution has a problem showing deliberation and premeditation in a crime involving acquaintances or where there might be alcohol involved," said David Bruck, a law professor at Washington & Lee University.

Should the jury determine that Huguely did not show premeditation prior to entering Love's apartment, he could be convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years, or manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. He also could be acquitted. But one crime for which Huguely will not be sentenced is capital murder, which requires one of 12 aggravating factors, none of which prosecutors believe he committed in this case.

Huguely told police he and Love had exchanged emails prior to her death. They may contain some indication of Huguely's state of mind when he entered her apartment, but the contents of those emails have not been released publicly.

Until January, Huguely had remained in custody on first-degree murder charges alone. But Jan. 7, prosecutors filed felony murder charges as well, which suggests the prosecution may not have the evidence to prove premeditation as a factor in determining whether Huguely committed a homicide.

"We find it significant that the new charges acknowledge no premeditation," Huguely's defense attorney Fran Lawrence said in a statement after the new charges were released. He and Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman have declined to comment for this article.

These new charges, however, may also present new complications for the defense, as it prepares a case it hopes will persuade a jury of Charlottesville citizens that Huguely should not spend the rest of his life behind bars.

David Heilberg, a defense attorney in Charlottesville who has practiced law for 31 years, said juries in the area tend to be "less conservative" than those in other parts of the state, which are notorious for handing down harsh sentences. But he stressed that there is nothing certain about how a jury will decide a case.

"The only thing predictable about a jury is its unpredictability," he said.

Felony murder \nBecause of the difficulties in proving premeditation, prosecutors often turn to felony murder as a way to obtain a murder conviction. To convict for felony murder, the prosecutor has to show that Huguely committed a felony - such as robbery, which Huguely is alleged to have committed - then must show that he was responsible for Love's death. Felony murder is considered second-degree murder and carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison, according to the Virginia Code.

"Once the prosecution proves the underlying felony, and that he caused the death in the course of committing it, they get him for murder - felony murder - without regard to his mental state with respect to the murder," Coughlin said.

Prosecutors from all jurisdictions in Virginia file this charge against a wide range of defendants. Last month, a woman in Woodbridge was indicted on felony murder charges after investigators alleged that she illegally obtained an anti-depressant then dispensed it to her 82-year-old father, causing an overdose which killed him.

Felony murder charges, Heilberg said, can be pressed even against an accomplice of a crime, such as the driver of a getaway vehicle for a murderer.

Coughlin said a man who robs a convenience store also could be charged with felony murder if the clerk dies of a heart attack during the course of the robbery.

"When we usually think about murder, we think about premeditation, deliberation, malice, forethought, someone who is evil and corrupt and who is planning the death of their victims," she said. "Here, if you commit the underlying felony and accidently cause the death, boom, murder."

'The usual suspects'\nThe man defending Hugely, Lawrence, is a defense attorney widely known as one of the most skilled litigators in the region.

Heilberg, who said he often works with Lawrence, called him an "excellent" attorney. Coughlin, who also said she knew Lawrence, predicted he and his partners would make the prosecutor's job difficult if the case proceeds through trial.

"It's not just that they're not sloppy; they're excellent," she said. "They're going to question every single piece of evidence; they're not going to concede anything. And so the prosecutor has that in mind as well and knows that a trial against these guys is not going to be a cakewalk. It's going to be a tough battle, even if he has a really good case."

Lawrence and his firm, St. John, Bowling, Lawrence & Quagliana, LLP, have worked on high-profile criminal trials in Charlottesville, and often have served as the attorneys of choice for defendants charged of a wide range of crimes.

Heilberg said Lawrence falls into a group he and other defense attorneys in the area call "the usual suspects," a group of lawyers defendants often turn to when charged with a serious crime.

"There is a group - I won't say of us - but there is a group of attorneys ... we call them the usual suspects," Heilberg said. "Fran is very strongly among the usual suspects, including some other very good attorneys."

One highly publicized case Lawrence has worked on involved a husband and wife who were arrested in 2002 after hosting a party at which they provided alcohol for their teenage son and his friends. A Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge handed down an unusually harsh sentence - eight years


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