Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia Circuit Court, George W. Huguely V (yeah, the fifth) pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. Huguely is the former University of Virginia lacrosse player charged with murdering his ex-girlfriend, Yeardley Love, also a UVA lacrosse player, in May 2010. According to most reports, Huguely broke down Love’s bedroom door and the two had a heated argument, which became violent, and ended only after Huguely slammed Love’s head against a wall. Love’s official cause of death was blunt force head trauma.
Huguely was arrested almost immediately after Love’s roommate found her face down in a pool of her own blood, and he hasn’t denied any of the material facts. So why is he pleading not guilty when he’s more or less already admitted that he killed her? Although the answer to that question is simple—regardless of whether he admits to killing her, he says it wasn’t premeditated—it opens up a controversial discussion over the way that prosecutors charge crimes today.
Historically, the definition of murder is “the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought.” Over time the term first-degree murder evolved as the premeditated killing of another human being. This premeditated or first-degree murder has typically been the crime for which the death penalty was sought. In the modern era the death penalty wasn’t given for non-premeditated murders. Regardless of these so-called common law definitions of murder, they might as well not exist today because each of the fifty United States has replaced the common (widely accepted for hundreds of years) definition of murder with its own complex, statutory definition.
In addition to each state’s independent definitions of crimes, each state now has its own interpretation of the terms that makeup the definitions of their criminal code. The end result of what has become roughly three decades of “improving” the criminal justice system is that today there are many more convicts being sentenced to life (and life-without-parole) sentences, and many others are serving sentences about three times as long as they would have if they’d committed the same crime 30 years ago.
Thirty plus years ago, a young man [first-time felon] would have been sent to a reformatory in hopes that he could be rehabilitated. He would have been eligible for release on parole after 38 months, no matter how many…felonies he had committed. The…parole authority could keep him in custody until it felt he was no longer a danger to society, but it could release him after less than four years of incarceration if he rehabilitated himself or was rehabilitated. [But America] has given up on rehabilitating inmates via reformatories.
Until relatively recently, Ohio had a law on the books which indicated that no matter how many…felonies a person committed, [they] could be released on parole after serving 15 years, possibly less for good time. The legislature wiped out that statute.
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I have a great deal of concern that we are warehousing for life a large number of young men, especially the poor and minorities. I have even more concern that [we] have given up on the whole concept of rehabilitation.
Those are the words of my longtime mentor Judge Gary Tyack of the Tenth District Court of Appeals of Ohio, which is an excerpt from his dissent to a majority opinion that affirmed a 70-year-sentence for a teenager who was convicted of a series of home-invasion burglaries.
Obviously George Huguely is neither poor nor a minority, nor did he come from a broken home, or grow up under any of the other so-called mitigating circumstances that typically lessen the severity of a criminal sentence. There is an even bigger problem with our criminal justice system today, and it isn’t the fault of the courts. The problem is the constant pressure that voters put on legislators to be tough on crime, which translates into passing laws that criminalize behavior that once wasn’t a crime, or increasing the penalty for the commission of crimes. Once these tougher laws go into effect, it’s the prosecutors that foul everything up, by overcharging, which they do in an effort to leverage guilty pleas that result in “fair” sentences. But who is to be the ultimate arbiter of what is fair?
Based on the statements of George Huguely’s defense team, it sounds like they would concede that he is guilty of either murder or manslaughter. If the prosecutor charged Huguely with either of those, they would likely get him to plead guilty, and he’d be sentenced to somewhere between five and twenty-five years in prison. By charging him with first-degree murder, however, Huguely is facing life in prison. There’s no incentive for the prosecutor to charge appropriately, so they treat their jobs like credit cards—they charge ‘em up as high as they can go.