Two years ago, University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely V, after a night of heavy drinking, went to the apartment of his ex-girlfriend and fellow Virginia lacrosse player, Yeardley Love, and proceeded to attack her. After repeatedly shaking her and hitting her head against the wall, Huguely took Love’s laptop and left, leaving her to die from the injuries she sustained. A few hours later, Charlottesville, Virginia, police brought Huguely in for questioning and eventually charged him with murder.
Earlier this year, a Charlottesville jury convicted Huguely of second-degree murder and recommended a prison sentence of 26 years. Huguely’s attorneys plan to seek a new trial, and barring that appeal the jury’s verdict. Yeardley Love’s mother and executor, Sharon Love, has also filed a civil wrongful-death lawsuit against Huguely. This civil suit and the media circus attracted to the case raised the question of what evidence form the recently concluded criminal trial would be made available to the Love family and the public.
Huguely’s attorneys sought to minimize public disclosure lest it affect a potential retrial or appeal, a process that could take months or years. Sharon Love had to file her lawsuit by last week, however, to meet the two-year statute of limitations in Virginia. As a compromise, the Charlottesville Circuit Court agreed to release “non-sensitive evidence” for a two-day viewing on May 15 and 16. During this time, limited evidence, notably Huguely’s interrogation by the police, can be seen, but not recorded or reproduced. While the public disclosure will include crime scene photos, the Court will still withhold “sensitive” evidence, including photos from Love’s autopsy.
The judicial wrangling over Love’s murder won’t be limited to criminal appeals and a civil suit against the murderer, however. Sharon Love also filed a lawsuit against a number of third parties, including the Commonwealth of Virginia and three members of the University of Virginia’s athletic department—athletics director Craig Littlepage, men’s lacrosse head coach Dom Starsia and assistant coach Marc Van Arsdals—alleging “negligence and gross negligence” that contributed to Yeardley Love’s death. Essentially, Sharon Love argues the Virginia athletic department failed to properly discipline Huguely in several prior, unrelated incidents preceding Yeardley Love’s murder. The lawsuit seeks $29,450,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
The lawsuit points to Huguely’s history of violence and alcohol abuse. In 2007, he was charged with illegal possession of alcohol by a minor. In 2008, he was convicted of public intoxication and resisting arrest in Lexington, Virginia, about 70 miles from UVA’s campus. In 2009, Huguely got drunk and assaulted a men’s lacrosse teammate—giving him a concussion—reportedly because he’d been seen in public with Love. In early 2010, at a party held by the lacrosse team, Huguely assaulted Love herself, “violently choking” her, according to the lawsuit.
In none of these cases, Sharon Love claims, did the UVA athletic department or the lacrosse coaches suspend or significantly discipline Huguely. With respect to Dom Starsia, the men’s head coach, the lawsuit claims he “had a special relationship and/or was in a position because of all of the circumstances, such that he owed a duty to protect UVA students from reasonable risks of harm by Huguely, including Love.” There was a “foreseeable danger” to Love based on Huguely’s prior conduct and his “jealousies surrounding Love.”
It’s unclear what Sharon Love’s lawsuit against the UVA defendants will accomplish. Curiously, she filed the lawsuit not in Charlottesville, where UVA is located, but it neighboring Louisa County, presumably to avoid a local jury with ties to the university. While the complaint seeks over $30 million in damages, this probably isn’t about money. (Love’s civil suit against Huguely seeks similar damages, although it’s unlikely he has any financial resources after paying for his criminal defense.) More likely, Love has two objectives: First, obtain a fuller account, via discovery and trial, of the events leading up to her daughter’s death; and second, publicly shame the University of Virginia into changing its rules and enforcement related to sexual assault and student-on-student violence.
A civil trial may not be the most helpful way to accomplish either goal. While Love and her attorneys may relish a chance to get various UVA officials under oath about what they knew (or didn’t know) about Huguely’s violence and alcohol abuse, the knife cuts both ways. Defense lawyers can, and should, probe Sharon Love and her family about their own knowledge or inaction related to Yeardley Love’s relationship with Huguely. For instance, if Sharon Love believed her daughter was in genuine danger from Huguely, why didn’t she contact UVA officials directly? The lacrosse coaches have to deal with dozens of players and support staff. They are not in as good a position to know what’s going on with Love, who wasn’t even one of their players, than her own mother.
By most accounts, the relationship between Huguely and Yeardley Love was on-again, off-again, and punctuated by incidents of abuse by both parties. If Love’s mother wants to put UVA staff on trial, then it’s equally examine Yeardley Love’s behavior. It’s unlikely Sharon Love wants to drag her daughter’s name and reputation through the mud just to score political points against the university.
As for the larger goal of challenging university policy, a trial needlessly makes adversaries out of allies. Over the years, there have been serious, credible allegations that UVA officials haven’t taken sexual assault seriously. Clearly, the Love family is justified in seeking structural policy changes to try and prevent future Yeardley Loves from being murdered by fellow students. But a civil suit against the state and the athletic department only diverts resources away from these noble objectives to fuel what looks like a revenge lawsuit from a grieving mother.
Since the state is a named party, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli is bound to represent the defense. Cuccinelli is a politician first and foremost, and a very conservative one at that. He’s seeking the governorship of Virginia in 2013. The last thing he wants to do is fight Sharon Love and court and go digging through Yeardley Love’s past. He’s exactly the sort of person who would rather push for stricter laws regarding campus reporting and discipline for violence and alcohol abuse.
Ultimately, the type of justice Sharon Love appears to want should be obtained through legislative, rather than judicial means. The civil suit against George Huguely is certainly justified. The civil suit against the UVA defendants is not. George Huguely was an adult. UVA is not his parent or legal guardian. There’s no evidence any athletic department employee had direct knowledge of imminent harm to Yeardley Love. Nor is there a causal connection between a failure to discipline Huguely as a member of the lacrosse team and his actions the night he killed Love.