One by one, potential jurors in the murder case against George W. Huguely V, who's accused of beating his former girlfriend to death when they were both University of Virginia students, took the witness stand Monday and revealed just how difficult it could be to seat an impartial jury.
They'd all heard about the high-profile case, and several said they had already made up their minds.
"It's obviously been discussed with my family and friends," said one young woman whose brother was a U.Va. student when Huguely, a popular lacrosse player, was arrested in May 2010 in the death of Yeardley Love.
Another potential juror said she would have trouble presuming Huguely's innocence because she feels sorry for Love's family. And a former headmaster at a girls boarding school said his work could bias him toward Love.
Lawyers methodically questioned candidates in Charlottesville Circuit Court while Huguely, who pleaded not guilty at the start of the proceeding, looked on. It was his first court appearance since his arrest in May 2010. Jury selection is expected to continue Tuesday.
The death of Love, a talented and well-liked government major from Baltimore County, made national headlines, and dozens of reporters have flooded the college town for the trial, which is expected to last two weeks. TV satellite trucks lined one full city block, and camera stands stood watch over the streets, pointed toward the courthouse steps, which have been designated an interview zone. It's unlikely either side will be speaking anytime soon, however. The judge has instituted a gag order preventing lawyers and police from commenting for the duration of the proceeding.
"This is Charlottesville's version of Casey Anthony," the Florida mother acquitted of killing her daughter in a trial that was followed by multiple media outlets, said David L. Heilberg, the immediate past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Huguely is accused of killing Love, a Cockeysville native, two years ago during an alcohol-fueled confrontation at her off-campus apartment, just weeks before the on-and-off couple were set to graduate. They were both lacrosse players and knew each other as part of an elite crowd of athletes.
Charges against Huguely, 24, include first-degree murder, burglary and grand larceny. He has admitted stealing her laptop, which contained emails sent between them, on his way out of Love's home, according to police records. Yet he pleaded not guilty to all charges Monday.
His case has become a rallying point for those concerned about domestic violence, who have used it to show that abuse can occur among the well-educated and well-off. Both Huguely, who grew up in Chevy Chase, and Love attended prestigious preparatory schools in Maryland and were thought to have bright futures. But Huguely was struggling with alcohol and anger issues, according to police records. He was arrested twice before for drinking-related infractions, and he threatened violence against officers on one occasion.
That publicized image troubles Huguely's two attorneys. In court filings, they've characterized news coverage as "unprecedented" and prejudicial against their client, who sat between them at the defense table Monday, looking boyish and thin in a dark sport coat. His hair had been trimmed so that it no longer matches his mug shot, which showed long, disheveled locks. And he appears to have lost weight during his time in jail awaiting trial, compared with his lacrosse days, when he was listed on a team roster at over 200 pounds.
"The reporting focused on the sensational aspects of the case," the defense lawyers wrote in a motion filed late last year. "Mr. Huguely was vilified as a domestic abuser, the product of wealth and privilege, an example of out-of-control 'lacrosse culture,' and so on."
They pointed to headlines in local newspapers saying "Huguely attacked teammate," "Huguely ... was a man of privilege, rage," and "Love had a growing fear of Huguely." They also blamed police for not quashing erroneous reports.
The day after Huguely's arrest, a reporter asked Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo Sr. about an apparently false rumor that Love had been strangled, and he refused to confirm or deny it, which may have allowed it to flourish.
A potential juror in the case repeated it Monday, saying he remembered reading that Love was "strangled or she was choked." The man also underscored how small Charlottesville, which has about 41,000 residents, can be, saying his son had played sports with one of the prosecutor's children. Still, the jury candidate said he could be impartial and weigh the evidence objectively.
Another candidate, a University of Virginia faculty member, said the same earlier in the day, though he acknowledged that the case is painful for many of his colleagues. "It gets my institution in the news in an unfortunate light," he said.
Others said they would have a harder time setting aside their snap judgments.
Many people on the streets Monday, enjoying the sunshine and mild weather, were less diplomatic.
"I've seen people say, 'They should fry him,' 'They should hang him,'" said John Stoudt, 41, an unemployed interpreter and 10-year Charlottesville resident.
"I believe he's guilty," said Christine Crenshaw, who has lived in Charlottesville since 1948, as she rushed off to the bank, a few blocks from the courthouse.
Huguely's lawyers are expected to argue that Love was taking prescription medication and drinking the night she died, which may have contributed to her death. Huguely has admitted to police that he fought with Love that night, shaking her repeatedly so that her head hit a wall, but he denies killing her.
"It is undisputed that a man hurt a woman. It is undisputed, that is fact," Rhonda Quagliana, one of Huguely's lawyers, said during jury questioning. She also said the "cause of death is a contested issue in this case."
That defense tack doesn't sit well with some.
"Blaming the victim, that really bothers me," said Catheryn Astin, a 60-year-old social worker and Charlottesville resident. She and her friends, who were on their way to lunch, said the case has raised awareness about issues of alcohol abuse and violence, and for that they were thankful. But they still called the circumstances tragic for both young people and their families, who watched jury selection from the front row of the courtroom Monday. Love's mother and older sister were seated on a bench to the right, while Huguely's parents sat on the left.
Jurors were brought in individually for questioning as reporters watched from the courthouse and a remote viewing location two blocks away, where a closed-circuit television displayed the proceedings.
Charlottesville officials spent months preparing for the trial, consulting with officials in Chesapeake, where the Beltway Sniper trial of Lee Boyd Malvo was held, "to learn from their experiences," said city spokesman Rick Barrick.
Charlottesville is known for its charming streets and eminently likable environment. It's frequently ranked among the top places to live, walk, eat and vacation. Its residents are unaccustomed to an influx of media for a negative event.
Love's death was shocking, said Mark Storslee, a U.Va. graduate student who was out for a walk with his new puppy. It was a reminder that "Charlottesville and the University of Virginia aren't immune to acts of violence," he said.
The campus is quieter on the topic now than it was in the days after Huguely's arrest, with fewer people talking about the case, he said, though pain still lingers for many who knew the couple.
"Hopefully," he said, "the trial can bring some closure."Copyright © 2015, CT Now