Huguely's trial ends with less than impressive lawyering

Sickness, mistakes and scattered summation plague defense

  • Rhonda Quagliana and Francis McQ. Lawrence, attorneys for George Huguely V', walk Thursday to the Charlottesville Circuit Court.
Rhonda Quagliana and Francis McQ. Lawrence, attorneys for… (The Daily Progress/Sabrina…)
February 19, 2012|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Maybe it was just as well George Huguely's defense lawyers screwed up their handling of a final witness, keeping him off the stand. His name: Jack Daniel.

Yes, a forensic pathologist who shares a name with a whiskey was slated to testify on behalf of the lacrosse player accused of killing his ex-girlfriend in a drunken rage.

We'll never know what the good doctor would have contributed to the defense of Huguely had he not been kept off the stand by a big mistake. After a two-week trial, jurors will begin deliberations Wednesday on whether Huguely killed Yeardley Love, the 22-year-old Cockeysville native who also was a University of Virginia lacrosse player.

Maybe Daniel could have rescued it, maybe he would simply have added to what I thought was a mistake-ridden, scattered defense. From one attorney getting violently sick during the most critical point of the trial, to witnesses who were either eviscerated on the stand or hampered by what they could say by the lawyers' mishandling their preparation, to, finally, a hot mess of closing arguments before the jury was given the case to start deliberations, the defense never quite seemed to find its footing in this high-profile case.

From the trials I've watched, the most effective lawyers put a clear narrative in front of you. There's a plot line that takes you from Point A to Point B, and convincing evidence to support it. I didn't hear that from Huguely's lawyers, Francis McQ. Lawrence and Rhonda Quagliana.

"There is a much more coherent theory they could have put out there," J. Lloyd Snook III agreed.

Snook, a defense attorney in Charlottesville who has been blogging about the case on his firm's website, is close to Lawrence and understandably a bit pained to criticize him. Still, he had to say his friend sent the case to the jury in less than convincing fashion, with a closing argument that has been widely panned for coming off as insensitive and rambling.

"Fran is a good friend of mine," was all Snook would say. "It was not one of his best efforts."

To me, Lawrence's closing reflected everything that was wrong with the defense. To be sure, it faced challenges, what with their client admittedly kicking in Love's door on the night of May 2, 2010, and having a fight that ended up in a wrestling match and, ultimately, her death.

"How do you explain busting in the door and leaving her for dead?" says another Charlottesville attorney, David Heilberg, the past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Heilberg and Snook said the defense also didn't help itself by saying, shortly after Huguely's arrest, that Love's death was an accident. While the legal definition of the word differs from the layman's understanding of it — "accident means unanticipated," Snook said — the statement triggered a firestorm.

"It created an atmosphere of, 'C'mon,'" Heilberg said. "It took the wind out of their sails."

The defense's case also wasn't helped by the fact that there was a previous physical altercation in which Huguely allegedly choked Love, and an email in which he says, after learning she had cheated on him, "I should have killed you."

Lawrence seemed to diminish the incidents, saying that the email was hyperbole, akin to what he himself might say when he was frustrated by one of his kids. His take on the door-kicking was even worse — saying it was just part and parcel of the way this turbulent couple communicated with one another.

Lawrence, who by all accounts is well-regarded, also seemed ill-prepared, bouncing from subject to subject without a clear beginning, middle and end.

By contrast, prosecutor Dave Chapman rose to the occasion, I thought. While he tended to try the patience of some observers during witness questioning — he could be long-winded and tedious — his closing was full of righteous fury over what had been done to Love.

"The initial sense of Dave is he's a technician, and he is, but he's very emotional," Heilberg said. "He really gets emotional about victims."

Such a display can only reinforce what the jurors saw every day in court — Love's heartbroken mother and sister, sitting in the front row, surrounded by rows and rows of family and friends.

Saturday was a bad day all around for the defense, starting with them getting called on the carpet for violating testimony rules by emailing their witnesses and telling them what previous experts had said on the stand.

All this on top of Quagliana falling ill on Thursday and leading to 11/2 days being lost. On her return Saturday, she looked terribly uncomfortable, pulling her jacket half-off in the warm courtroom as she questioned a witness, clutching her stomach occasionally and even leaving rapidly for a restroom at one point.

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