Monday, September 17, 2012

A College Murder

Domestic Violence is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute.  I have successfully navigated through the prosecution waters without a stint in a domestic violence bureau.  To be honest, it's something I've avoided.  I've only handled one domestic violence case, a murder, where the husband claimed he stabbed his wife because she was going to leave him.  It was an extreme emotional disturbance defense, but the case never went to trial.  The husband killed himself in jail before the trial began.

But many of my cases are DV related.  Many of my witnesses have open DV cases.  Violations of orders of protection abound.  The issue with DV cases from a prosecution standpoint is that most of the victims want to drop the charges almost immediately.  Every DV prosecutor I know reads the paper each day hoping that one of their victims is not the latest name on the homicide list.

In Virginia last month, an especially tragic DV case went to trial.  24 year old George W. Huguely, V, was accused of killing his former girlfriend, Yeardley Love.  Both were University of Virginia lacrosse players.  Alcohol was involved, as was a history of DV related behavior for Huguely.

The murder occurred in the late evening and early morning of May 2-3, 2010.  Ms. Love died of blunt force trauma to the head, as a result of Huguely striking her head against the wall during an argument.  Huguely claimed in an interrogation that they did have an argument, but that Ms. Love's head struck the wall accidentally.  The jury disregarded this claim, in part because the force needed to cause the injuries would be much more than an accidental hit to the wall.

Huguely was drinking all day long and went to her room to confront Love.  A damning piece of evidence was an email Huguely sent her a few days before the murder that read, "I should have killed you."  The email was in response to Love's alleged infidelity.

The case brought to the surface many issues that simmer below the radar on college campuses - alcohol abuse, violence, domestic violence reporting, and restraining orders.  It all culminated in the tragic and horrific death of a beautiful young woman and the imprisonment of a young man.

DV victims deserve every bit of help that we can give them.  Women, and men, should not have to suffer through abusive relationships and feel they are imprisoned by them.  They need to see the road out and given encouragement to take it.

The problem in some cases is victims and defendants can learn to abuse the system.  Once the cycle starts, and the police report is taken, it is easy to stay in it.

Jamison Koehler just posted a link demonstrating this.  A woman calls the police during an argument with her husband.  She tells the 911 operator, "I need to have this man out of my house.  I need to have him arrested."  I don't know more about that case to discuss about it, but it shows the problem.  A simple phone call to the police can create a chain of events that leads to a husband's arrest for DV assault and him taken to jail for a period of time.  Then, the wife can show up to court and ask to drop the case.  The next time he gets drunk, is out too late with his friends, or cheats on her she'll call the police and do it again.  The threat of a DV arrest is then used as a sword, not a shield.

I'm not saying this happens in every DV case.  In fact, I'd argue this is the exception, not the rule.  But it is the same problem as wrongful convictions.  Each wrongful conviction or arrest based on false charges undermines the credibility of the entire system.  It leads to jaded prosecutors, judges, advocates, and defense attorneys.  Where the first thought should be 'how do we help this women', it can become 'is she lying?'

It's a constant struggle in the minds of a DV prosecutor.  It's a constant threat in the subconscious of every prosecutor.  I have never had a witness harmed in a case, but the thought is always there.  When a witness wants to drop the charges, we always have to ask why.  Was it a threat, bribe, a lie from the beginning, or does the person just not want to deal with it?  Every wrongful conviction and invalid arrest negatively impacts valid arrests and credible convictions.  It creates higher hurdles for the prosecution and police throughout the investigation and trial.

As for Huguely, he was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison.  The jury had recommended 26, but the judge, who has the final say, imposed 23.  In New York, the jury is told not to ever think about sentencing in a case.  They cannot and do not provide a recommendation.  It shocked me when I researched this case to discover Virginia jurors do.  I like New York's system better.  Let the juries decide guilt or innocence only and let the judge decide sentencing.  

1 comment:

  1. That is a really tragic case. I agree with the NY system of sentencing. I think that puts too much on the jury. I like the NY way of doing it!