UVA murder exposes flaws in access to protective orders

 

By Findley Merritt and Wit Robertson

State Sen. George Barker hadn’t realized that Virginia had a loophole in protecting victims of domestic violence until one of his constituents, a father of two daughters, pointed out that the law wouldn’t help them if they were in an abusive relationship.

Early last year Barker introduced a bill that would ease Virginia’s strict requirements that people seeking protective orders—or bans on contact—had to be related to or had to live with the person they feared.

But the legislation foundered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That is, until May 3, when two University of Virginia students discovered the battered body of Yeardley Love, a senior member of the school’s varsity lacrosse team, in her off-campus apartment.

The arrest of George Huguely, Love’s longtime boyfriend, on first-degree murder charges brought to light the pervasive problem of dating violence on college campuses. It is an issue that has captured the attention of students, university officials, law enforcement and legislators.

“The UVA situation ended up staying in the public eye,” Barker said, “and it really helped focus attention on the issue and make legislators and others determine that this time we are going to do something about it.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the bill into law March 24, but it does not go into effect until July 1. Virginia will become the 41st state to expand the scope of protective orders in domestic violence cases.

Under current law Love probably would have had difficulty obtaining a protective order if she had tried, because she didn’t live with Huguely.

Her only option would have been to start a lengthy criminal process that would have required her to prove that Huguely had physically abused or stalked her.  When women take such a formal step, it often increases the danger they face, Barker said.

Even with a protective order in hand, there are no guarantees that it will prevent violence.

“The simple fact is that a protective order is a piece of paper,” said Jon R. Zug, Albemarle County assistant commonwealth’s attorney. “If somebody really wants to have contact with the other party — I’ll use the term from the Dixie Chicks — they’re going to walk right through that restraining order.”

The “Post-It” breakup

When women are in college, they are more vulnerable to dating violence, said Dr. Kathryn Laughon, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Virginia.

Nearly 20 percent of female college students become victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, according to the U.S. Department of Education. On April 4, the department issued guidance to high schools and colleges on their responsibilities in responding to sexual violence.

“If sexual violence has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence and address its effects, whether or not the sexual violence is the subject of a criminal investigation,” the department’s Office for Civil Rights said in a letter to schools.

The same day that Virginia Gov. McDonnell signed the protective order legislation, he approved a bill that requires middle and high schools to include education about dating violence in their health curricula.

Laughon said education is important because women often don’t realize that they are being abused.

“I think we all have a tendency, when something’s happening to us, none of us wants to give it an ugly name,” she said.

UVA and Washington and Lee University, like many colleges, have several resources, ranging from prevention to counseling services, to raise awareness about and deal with dating violence.

Locally, Project Horizon, a non-profit organization, provides counseling and other services for battered women and families affected by domestic violence.

“I don’t think it really depends on financial status or the color that you may be,” said Rebecca Wilder, project coordinator for Project Horizon. “I think it really happens across the board.”

The new protective order law will provide students, universities and community organizations with another tool to combat dating violence, Barker said.

Dawn Watkins, Washington and Lee’s dean of students, said the university tries to provide students with the information they need to deal with such issues.

“But it’s usually not until a person finds themselves in that situation that they actually begin to delve into what all of those posters and fliers and sessions and programs that they’ve been asked to attend,” she said.

But Laughon said the first step in preventing dating violence is recognizing the “little signs” of potential violence, especially before and after a breakup.  They include efforts to isolate a woman from friends and family, excessive texting, stalking, jealousy, explosive anger and increasing alcohol or drug use.

“This is the case for the Post-It breakup: Leave a note and be gone before the other person knows you’re planning on leaving,” she said.

Violators taken seriously

Lt. Ronnie Roberts of the Charlottesville Police Department said police and judges are taking domestic violence more seriously, especially when protective orders are violated.

“You do from time to time find protective orders that are violated, but typically the courts have taken a very stern approach on the person violating the order, and in handing out some pretty tough sentences,” he said.

A victim of domestic violence can go to a police officer, sheriff or magistrate to obtain an emergency protective order, but not a local prosecutor — a fact that worries Zug, the Albemarle County domestic violence prosecutor — because, he said, not all counties have the resources that women need to seek help and protection.

An “emergency” protective order typically lasts 72 hours. After that, the person who obtained the ban on contact must seek a preliminary protective order from a Domestic Relations court. The preliminary order expires after 15 days. A more permanent order, known as a restraining order, then can be issued by a judge for up to two years.

When an emergency protective order is issued, the police provide a copy to the person who is being asked to refrain from contact.  The new law includes penalties for violations of the orders that range from 60 days to six months in jail.

“There are plenty of people who don’t violate protective orders,” said Zug, “because they know if I violate this protective order … then I’m going to jail.”

“It happened in our own backyard”

When Love’s body was discovered, her head was in a pool of blood; she had large bruises on her face, a swollen right eye and scrapes on her chin, according to court records.

Yeardley Love, a former UVA student, was murdered in May 2010. (UVA Media Relations)

Huguely admitted that he had been involved in a physical altercation with Love that day and that he shook her violently and her head hit a wall, according to police and court records.  A preliminary hearing is set for Monday in Charlottesville’s General District Court.

Love’s death shocked students at UVA. “It was surreal,” said Will Stettinius, a senior at UVA, who knows Huguely. “It was really kind of disturbing that it happened in our own backyard.”

He said Love’s death changed the way he looks at how students should deal with dating violence when they see friends behaving badly. Before the murder, he said, he was reluctant to intervene.

“Now, I don’t think I have a problem doing it,” Stettinius said.

All UVA students are now required to disclose whether they have criminal records before they can access course materials and school e-mail accounts. If they fail to report an arrest, they could be found in violation of the school’s honor code.

“It’s part of awareness with people trying to keep, or steer clear of any sort of violent act,” said UVA senior Walker Redd.

The issue of prior arrests became a pressure point because Huguely was arrested in Lexington — and had to be subdued by a stun gun — during an altercation with a female police officer. In November 2008 he was charged with resisting arrest and public intoxication. He pleaded guilty and was fined $100.

In the past year UVA students have held charity events to raise money for a foundation that Love’s friends created to encourage underprivileged children to play lacrosse.

“Isolated events of severe tragedy happen. So it’s kind of the only thing a student body like UVA has to do,” Redd said, referring to the school’s 14,000 students. “And I think they handled it in a pretty positive light out of a very dark situation.”

Crossing socio-economic lines

Huguely’s arrest in Love’s death raised pointed questions about student athletes and their attitudes about following the rules.

Jan Hathorn, Washington and Lee’s athletic director, said lacrosse players — both men and women — sometimes possess a sense of entitlement that makes them act as if they are “untouchable.”

That is why, she said, she wanted the W&L men’s lacrosse team to receive the Green Dot program’s training on how to deal with domestic violence, especially if young men witness their teammates and friends engaging in troubling behavior.

George Huguely was charged with killing Yeardley Love. (Charlottesville Police)

All men and women at W&L can obtain one-on-one counseling through the CAIR program and the counseling center if they believe they — or someone they know —are victims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation or sexual misconduct.

“As an athletic director … I want to make sure that we as coaches are paying attention to any little signs,” Hathorn said. “It’s a sticky situation because it’s delicate and it’s intimate and it’s not pretty.”

Hathorn and other W&L officials said dating violence on college campuses is not limited to athletes because domestic violence cuts across all socio-economic lines.

“Absolutely, I think we’re lucky that it hasn’t happened at Washington and Lee,” said Jennifer Sayre, violence prevention coordinator at W&L. “I think dating violence can escalate anywhere, and that’s just reality.”

Zug, the domestic violence prosecutor, said Huguely’s case has focused attention on the issue of dating violence. But the problem didn’t start with Huguely and Love, he said.

“I think it is important for everyone to realize that it is a community problem and that if you want peace on earth, peace on earth starts with peace in the home,” he said.  “The simple fact is that this is a problem that has existed since man has walked the earth.”

Anne Vesoulis and Ben Petitto also contributed to this story.