CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A former University of Virginia lacrosse player who killed his ex-girlfriend in a drunken rage received a 23-year prison sentence Thursday in a case that forever changed the school's attitudes toward relationship violence and made it easier for abuse victims in the state to obtain restraining orders.
George W. Huguely V had three years trimmed from a jury's recommended sentence of 26 years for the May 2010 slaying of Yeardley Love. Huguely, 24, could be released in less than 20 years.
"Unlike Ms. Love, Mr. Huguely still has the majority of his life ahead of him," Charlottesville Circuit Judge Edward Hogshire told the court.
Asked by the judge if he wanted to address the court before sentencing, a shackled and tearful Huguely turned to Love's mother, Sharon Love, and sister Lexie and said, "I'm so sorry for your loss and I hope you find peace."
Huguely, of Chevy Chase, Md., was convicted in February of the second-degree murder of Love, 22, of Cockeysville, Md., a Baltimore suburb. Jurors also found Huguely guilty of grand larceny for stealing Love's computer from her apartment.
Huguely and Love, both seniors and varsity lacrosse players at U.Va., had a volatile relationship that spiraled into Huguely's deadly confrontation with Love late on the night of May 2, 2010, after a day of heavy drinking and golfing by Huguely. Love was found the next morning, her battered face in a blood-soaked pillow.
During a 3 1/2-hour sentencing hearing, prosecutor David Chapman presented witnesses who described violent incidents involving Huguely before he killed Love. They included the beating of a friend who went home with Love after a party and the unprovoked punching of another person after a night of drinking. He also angrily wrapped his hands around a young woman in a bar after she told her father, his former high school lacrosse coach, to talk to Huguely about his heavy drinking.
"Sooner or later he was going to seriously injure or kill someone," Chapman said.
Huguely's attorneys acknowledged he drank too much, but Chapman disagreed that was the problem.
"The issue, your honor, is not too much alcohol," he told Hogshire. "The issue here is too much violence."
In a police interrogation video played at his trial, Huguely admitted he and Love had a physical confrontation over their on-again, off-again two-year relationship but he denied inflicting the fatal injuries Love suffered. He said she had banged her head against her bedroom wall.
A coroner concluded she died of blunt force trauma.
Love's death followed several months of tension between the two young athletes. Former teammates and friends testified that each accused the other of infidelity and they described incidents of Huguely's escalating drinking.
The Huguely family, many of whom attended the sentencing hearing but did not testify, issued a statement after the sentencing, calling it "a sad day for our family." They also echoed one of Huguely's attorneys, Francis McQ. Lawrence, in his defense of Huguely.
"We continue to believe what Mr. Lawrence said within hours of meeting George, on May 3, 2010: `Yeardley's death was not intended but an accident with a tragic outcome.' "
Love's family did not address the sentencing hearing but issued a statement that read in part: "We find no joy in others' sorrow."
Lawrence attempted to counter Chapman's depiction of Huguely as a brutish, drunken jock by presenting family members who described him as thoughtful, caring and attentive to the needs of others.
A white-cassocked Roman Catholic priest who had visited Huguely in jail weekly since his arrest more than two years ago described Huguely as spiritual and never saw flashes of anger.
"It's not the same person, the person that the media portrays as the wild, out-of-control person," the Rev. Joseph Scordo said. He described Huguely as his "spiritual grandson."
Chapman argued for the full 26-year sentence recommended by jurors, arguing that Huguely would still be a relatively young man after serving his time. For the Loves, however, "There's nothing left but loss and sorrow, in many ways."
Yeardley Love was to be her sister Lexie's maid-of-honor at her upcoming wedding. "The maid of honor will be missing," Chapman said as Lexie dabbed tears from her face. "He took from them their future as a family."
In reducing Huguely's sentencing, Hogshire strayed from tradition. Virginia judges typically heed a jury's sentence recommendations.
Huguely's attorneys sought a sentence reduction to 14 years.
Virginia has no parole but Huguely could reduce his sentence by 15 percent if he earns credits by participating in prison programs and stays out of trouble. He also would be credited with time served, leaving him with 18 years in prison.
Love's mother, Sharon Love, has filed two lawsuits seeking nearly $60 million. One is aimed at Huguely while the other claims U.Va. and athletic department officials and coaches ignored Huguely's drinking and violent behavior.
Huguely was arrested in Lexington in 2008 after a drunken confrontation with a police officer.
Love's death has had a lasting impact in Virginia and at the university. It's easier now for abuse victims in Virginia to get a restraining order and students must tell the university if they have ever been arrested.
School officials and students also have tried to make the culture on campus one in which people look out for each other and aren't afraid to report relationship violence.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap