An evidentiary hearing will be held for George Huguely V in Charlottesville’s federal court after his counsel claimed that a dictionary was improperly consulted by the jury that convicted him of second-degree murder in 2012.
Huguely, a former University of Virginia lacrosse player, was found guilty in Charlottesville Circuit Court in 2012 in the slaying of Yeardley Love, who also played lacrosse at UVa and was Huguely’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. She was found dead in her apartment in May 2010, two weeks before she and Huguely were set to graduate.
In the years since the trial, Huguely has attempted to appeal the case in several instances, and in 2015, he appealed the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused his petition for certiorari on his claim that the circuit court denied his right to counsel by forcing him to proceed in the absence of his retained counsel of choice.
With direct methods of appeal exhausted, counsel for Huguely in April filed a writ of habeas corpus — a court order demanding that the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections deliver a prisoner to the court and show a valid reason for the person’s detention. The writ, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, alleges a swath of Sixth Amendment violations.
The filing argues that the court should vacate Huguely’s conviction and sentence or order an evidentiary hearing. This latest attempt comes after a writ of habeas corpus was denied by the Charlottesville Circuit Court in 2018.
Following a hearing before the federal court in November, U.S. District Judge Thomas T. Cullen issued an opinion Monday, denying all of Huguely’s claims apart from one: that the jury had improperly consulted a dictionary on the definition of the word “malice” during its deliberations.
“As explained below, the state court’s resolution of that claim was an unreasonable determination of the facts before it,” Cullen wrote. “Therefore, the court concludes that an evidentiary hearing is necessary to determine (1) whether the jury improperly consulted a dictionary for the definition of a vital legal term; and (2) if they did, whether that action prejudiced Huguely.”
During the November hearing, Huguely’s attorney, Jeffrey M. Harris, argued that the issue of malice is critical due to the disagreements between the prosecution and defense over the cause of Love’s death. The prosecution argued that Love’s death was caused by a traumatic brain injury she sustained from Huguely, while the defense argued she died from positional asphyxia, caused by sleeping face down on a wet pillow.
Given this competing evidence, Harris said the issue of whether Huguely acted with malice was effectively the difference between second-degree murder and manslaughter.
In his opinion, Cullen detailed not only the claims but a series of affidavits and statements given by 11 of the jurors.
Only one of the jurors, Juror 42, claimed that a dictionary had been used but eight others had said they did not know whether or not a dictionary had been consulted. Two jurors said no dictionary was consulted and only one of those jurors said they were certain, Cullen wrote.
“In resolving Huguely’s dictionary claim without an evidentiary hearing, the state court overlooked or ignored crucial evidence and left unanswered important questions raised by the record,” he wrote. “Namely, the court’s central factual finding omitted the most important portion of Juror 42’s testimony, and its analysis ignored a string of statements supporting Juror 42’s account of events.”
The Charlottesville Circuit Court did not focus on all parts of Juror 42’s three statements, instead seemingly choosing to ignore a statement in which the juror clarified that, though they did not see the dictionary, they were certain one had been consulted.
More striking is a general agreement from the juror that there was confusion over the meaning of the word “malice,” Cullen wrote, and that the court had answered the question in some capacity. However, according to records, the court never received an inquiry about the word’s definition.
“This raises a troubling question: If the court did not answer the jury’s question about the definition of ‘malice,’ who — or what — did?” Cullen wrote. “This question is particularly concerning in light of the fact that six jurors seem to be under the impression that the court resolved their question.”
Huguely’s argument was not conclusory and was well-reasoned, Cullen wrote, and thus an evidentiary hearing would be granted, though the burden for the defense to prove prejudice will be “immense.”
“To demonstrate prejudice justifying habeas relief, he must not only show that the jury consulted a dictionary regarding the meaning of ‘malice,’ a threshold factual hurdle that the evidence presented to date does not establish by clear and convincing evidence, but also that the definition they consulted prejudiced him,” Cullen wrote. “He is nevertheless entitled to that opportunity.”
A status hearing is set for Jan. 8 and the evidentiary hearing is expected to happen soon afterward.
Huguely remains imprisoned at the State Farm Enterprise Unit in Powhatan County and is currently set for release in 2030.