Understanding the Legalities of a Tragedy

February 9, 2012

With the trial of Commonwealth v. George Huguely V finally under way, Charlottesville is abuzz with news reports and water cooler gossip about what is doubtless the city’s most-discussed homicide since its ex-mayor was tried (and convicted and hung) for the murder of his wife in 1904. Factual details, rumors, and opinion abound.  Some of it is informed.  Much of it is not.

On occasion, particularly when I happen to be the only lawyer in the room, I have been asked for my thoughts on what will happen with the trial.  I always preface my response with the caveat that I spent most of my time in practice handling civil litigation and bankruptcy matters.  With the exception of some court-appointed work and the occasional retained traffic matter, I handled lawsuits, not criminal cases.

With that said, I have usually done my best to explain the basic framework of how the criminal justice system works, and what the possible outcomes of the trial might be.  As I have always felt a bit out of my depth when doing so, I was very pleased to see this article, which does a good job at laying out the basic landscape of what the trial is about.  If you want a more detailed analysis, written by an experienced and well-regarded local criminal defense attorney, check out Lloyd Snook’s blog.

I commend both of these articles to anyone who has questions about the issues that will be presented to 12 Charlottesville jurors in the next couple of weeks.

There are a couple of additional points that I’d like to add.

First, I know the four attorneys involved in the Huguely case, as well as the judge.  They are all well-respected in the legal community.  They are all intelligent, talented, ethical, and committed to a fair trial.  However, regardless of the trial’s outcome, there will doubtless be those who will second-guess the lawyers’ trial strategy.  Please ignore the armchair lawyering, unless it comes from someone who makes his or her living in a courtroom.  Both the Commonwealth and George Huguely are being ably represented.

Second, barring a mistrial, this case will have one of two possible outcomes on each charge – guilty or not guilty.  Contrary to popular belief, the concept of being “proven innocent” does not exist in our legal system.  The prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a defendant is guilty of a given charge.  If the prosecution meets this burden, the jury should return a “guilty” verdict.  If it does not, the jury should return a “not guilty” verdict.  The concept of “innocence” does not enter into the picture – despite what you might see in in movies, television, and even on the occasional news story.

Regardless of the trial’s outcome, this case will remain a tragedy that no verdict will repair.  One life has been lost, another likely ruined, two families have suffered unimaginable loss and sadness, and many others have been affected as well.  None of that will change.  We can only hope for a fair trial and a just result – whatever that may be.  If you read the articles that I’ve cited, and others like them, you will be in a better position to make an informed judgment about whether that hope has been fulfilled.