A Tale of Two Murders

In the current C-Ville Weekly, Brendan Fitzgerald contrasts two Charlottesville murders, the accused in one a rich, white UVA student, the accused in another a poor, black high school dropout. One—George Huguely—is accused of killing fellow student Yeardley Love at her apartment on May 3. The other—Demonte Burgess—is accused of killing Miguel Salazar at a trailer park on January 22. The question, of course, is what the outcome of each trial will be, and the extent to which the difference is because of their respective race and class. (A stark illustration of that contrast comes in the form of sentencing guidelines for cocaine versus those for crack. Selling coke will get you a slap on the wrist; selling crack will get you a decade in prison.) It seems entirely likely that, should they be found guilty, these two men will receive significantly different sentences.

11 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Murders”

  1. Selling coke will get you a slap on the wrist; selling coke will get you a decade in prison.

    Coke used twice in the same sentence. Presume you meant Crack the 2nd time.

    And it’s nice to see a paper doing a comparison/contrast regarding the inequities of the judicial system- one standard for UVA students another standard for Townies.

    I’m also still waiting for the Comer Sentencing. That was originally supposed to be in April but was pushed back. I’m betting there will be judicial inequity their as well (when compared to the less connected women who stole far less- during the last two years).

  2. That was a really interesting comparison. It is what it is: the loss of some lives is more interesting and galvanizing to Americans than the loss of other lives. This fact should be a cause for shame in the land of supposedly-blind justice.

    I don’t know what call to make regarding Huguely’s case, though — either he gets off easy because he’s a rich white male, or he gets nailed to the wall because killed a rich white female. It could really go either way, I think.

    Demonte Burgess, though, is simply f*cked.

  3. FYI: the crack/powder sentencing differential is in the federal system, but not the state system.

    Virginia uses sentencing guidelines that were designed to equalize disparities in sentencing for similarly-situated defendants. A study that was done in the past two years shows that those states (as Virginia) that have adopted these (discretionary) guidelines have largely eliminated the vast differences in sentences between defendants that have differing demographics but otherwise similar cases and criminal histories. Huguely has a minimal criminal history, mainly his antics in Lexington. Burgess appears to have some misdemeanors as well. The sentencing guidelines assign points for previous convictions, the amount of points based upon factors including the seriousness of the offense. If their histories are similar, and the crimes they are convicted of are the same (which they may not be–there are several different homicide statutes) then they should be treated similarly in sentencing, subject to any mitigating or aggravating factors that the court may find.

    A caveat is that juries do not see sentencing guidelines. A jury is merely instructed as to the minimum and maximum sentence available under the law. A judge may modify (downwards, by suspending part of) a jury’s sentence under the guidelines, but this is rare.

    Thus, a “sympathetic” defendant may choose to go in front of a jury, in hopes of receiving a better sentence, while a less appealing defendant may choose to be tried by a judge, in hopes that prejudice would play a lesser role in sentencing. However, as Cecil points out, the emotional appeal of the victim may play a role too. A jury may find the murder of a lovely young UVA student more shocking than that of some poor guy with an Hispanic name living in a trailer park.

    In terms of demographic differences when it comes to sentencing: first, Huguely is likely to be able to speak eloquently at a sentencing hearing regarding his remorse and sorrow for his actions and their consequences; while Burgess, with his apparent lack of education, is far less likely to be able to impress either a judge or a jury with his sincerity and depth of feeling. This doesn’t mean that either of them feels any differently–in fact, if Huguely is a glib speaker he may be able to say what he believes the sentencing court wants to hear, without actually meaning it–but the impact will be different. Also, though race may play a role in sentencing, Charlottesville juries tend to be at least somewhat aware of racism, and to apparently self-correct. In fact, a jury may be even more offended by a rich white kid, with all his advantages, committing this crime, than by a poor black kid who was homeless and seemed to have nothing much to live for.

    However, in terms of the legal process, I don’t believe that the system will treat them that differently, just because there are so many positive and negative factors on each side. Which is not to say that the system is perfect. People start off with huge disparities in terms of their ability to understand the proceedings, their ability to make choices that are in their best interest, etc. Their backgrounds (dysfunctional families, lack of education, exposure to unhealthy lifestyles) play a role. Sometimes, though, those with the most advantages come out the worst, because (and Huguely may be one of these) they have a sense of entitlement about all their actions. Spoiled rich kids and neglected poor kids alike tend to push boundaries, hoping that someone will notice their behavior. Middle/upper-class defendants are most likely to believe that they deserve special treatment–that they shouldn’t have to go to jail for the same behaviors as anyone else.

  4. More self-flagellation from C-ville. Oh, my white guilt is killing me! I thought for sure that electing Obama would relieve us of that burden.

  5. “More self-flagellation from C-ville.”

    Huh. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. When I read the article, I mostly saw a straight-up, fact-based comparison of the backgrounds of the two men. I didn’t see Fitzgerald flagellating himself or anyone else.

    Here’s where Huguely grew up. Here’s where Burgess grew up. Here’s where Huguely committed his alleged murder. Here’s where Burgess committed his alleged murder. Here’s the jail where they both are now. Etc.

  6. if you can’t read between the lines, at least read the last paragraph. Here it is:

    After four very different years spent in the same “bucolic” city, Burgess and Huguely find themselves accused of the same sort of criminal deviance. But for the first time—at least, in the eyes of the court—both young men are about to be considered in a similar light. As long as their cases are active, ideally, the legal system should render the many differences between Huguely and Burgess entirely superficial and beside the point, when it comes to the crimes they may have committed. But the jury is out, in every sense, as to whether the differences that defined their lives up until now will define their paths going forward as justice is served.

  7. Mark, are you honestly suggesting that race, class, and money have no influence on outcomes in the judicial system, or that C-Ville is somehow nursing “white guilt” to ask whether these two men will get treated the same by the justice system? Personally, I read the story as a challenge to a justice system that does have a history of favoring wealth and status. I don’t know what guilt has to do with an honest appraisal of a system into which we pour millions of our tax dollars. This is local journalism at its best, and C-Ville is the only paper in town that consistently connects the dots in this way.

  8. “As long as their cases are active, ideally, the legal system should render the many differences between Huguely and Burgess entirely superficial and beside the point, when it comes to the crimes they may have committed.”

    A straightforward articulation of the ideal upon which our justice system is founded. I’m not sure what the problem is there.

    “But the jury is out, in every sense, as to whether the differences that defined their lives up until now will define their paths going forward as justice is served.”

    A valid and restrained observation about possible future events. I don’t see your problem here either — are you saying the differences that defined their lives will NOT have an impact on their experience in the judicial system?

    Can you show me the self-flagellation? the breast-beating? the guilty hand-wringing? Cuz I pretty much saw a writer who saw an interesting real-time opportunity to contrast two guys of the same age in the same town who are accused of committing similar crimes, with an eye to the ways in which socioeconomic status might play a role in their experiences. Since when did intellectual curiosity become white guilt?

  9. Another point to consider is that ,at least historically, nonwhites committing crimes against other nonwhites have tended to be less severely penalized than if they committed crimes against whites.
    Its not inconceivable that some jurors may consider the killing of a Hispanic(whom they may even suspect is an illegal immigrant) to be less heinous than if the victim were an “Anglo.” Yes its prejudice-but it does exist.
    We saw with the Andrew Alston case how family position and money can make a difference in lessening the penalty. But that is not always necessarily so. Don’t know how many here remember the Patricia Hearst case back in the 70s but the fact that this was a young woman from a privileged background accused of committing serious crimes actually worked against her when she was tried.

  10. The crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity is often cited as an example of racism at work in the justice system, but it isn’t, in fact, it’s quite the reverse. The disparity was deliberately introduced as a response to the devastation crack was causing in low-income and minority neighborhoods because of the nature and availability of the drug itself and because of the dramatic increase of gun violence associated with the gang wars over control over the crack trade. Anyone who lived in Richmond in the 80s can remember its notoriety as “Murder City, USA” caused mostly by gang-related homicides.

    One can argue that the sentencing disparity was misguided and has caused more disproportionate harm than it prevented, especially now that the crack wars have slacked off into the “normal” rate of gang violence, but the *intent* behind the law was to help minorities, not to hurt them.

  11. Let’s all get up in a lather over an article that conjectures about outcomes that haven’t even happened yet presupposes what they’ll be.

    What is it called when you make assumptions before the judicial process has taken its course?



    Certainly there seem to be some of you out there who “know” what the outcome will be.

    Why/how is that?

    Examine what is in your own hearts.

    I suppose if you are a liberal/progressive it simply means you are enlightened and thinking on a much higher plane than the rest of us because you just know how the system works and you understand better than the average man what is in the human heart.

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