CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a defense attorney for former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely vetted potential jurors for a first-degree murder trial this week, she asked several questions about personal experiences with domestic violence.
Huguely is accused of breaking into the bedroom of his ex-girlfriend, Yeardley Love, in May 2010 and beating her to death. He is charged with first-degree murder, among other things, and could face a life sentence. On Monday, Huguely pled not guilty to all of the charges against him.
The details of the events that led to Love’s death are expected to be presented in court this week, but advocates against domestic abuse are already using this trial as an opportunity to spread information about college dating violence and available resources.
“Unfortunately, it’s more common that anyone realizes,” said Sarah Ellis of Shelter for Help in Emergency in Charlottesville, which assists victims of domestic violence and runs a 24-hour hotline. ”People need to learn the signs.”
On the evening of Valentine’s Day next week, Shelter and a recently formed group called Teens Against Dating Abuse plan to host a vigil in downtown Charlottesville, just a few blocks from the courthouse and rows of satellite television trucks.
A number of potential jurors in a pool of 160 were asked to discuss their experiences with domestic abuse on Monday and Tuesday: One woman said her sister-in-law was killed by a boyfriend. Another woman said she temporarily lived in a shelter as a child when her mother fled her father. A man said a friend once stayed with him to hide from a stalker. A sister. A daughter. A close friend.
The phrase “domestic abuse” often conjures the idea of a couple living together, possibly married with children, so some colleges and advocacy groups have started using terms like “college dating violence” or “teen dating abuse” when explaining to students what to do if they or a friend needs help.
Last week, U-Va. Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia M. Lampkin again e-mailed students with instructions for what to do if they witness or are the victim of any sort of violence or abuse, along with links to resources on the Web. Lampkin also wrote that the trial could “create or compound emotional distress for students or others” and encouraged students to seek counseling, if needed.
“It is important not to ignore those around us who may be experiencing difficulty,” she wrote in the Feb. 1 e-mail.
The physical, emotional and sexual abuse that occurs in the relationships of teens and 20somethings is often similar to that of older people, but has its own set of issues, Ellis said. Younger daters are more likely to be harassed via text message, social media or e-mail, she said, and many young people have a hard time recognizing abuse in their relationships or those of their friends. Boyfriends and girlfriends are usually trusted confidants whose questionable behavior builds over time.
“When does the, ‘I love you and want to talk to you all the time,’ move into the ‘I love you and want to know who you are talking to all the time,’” Ellis said. “The adolescent outlook is often, ‘This really isn’t as serious as you’re making it.’”
For students or anyone currently experiencing abuse or trying to figure out how to get a friend help, Ellis recommends looking online for resources or calling a confidential hotline to ask for advice. It’s better to error on the side of reaching out, she said.
“Give her the information when you can in a non-judgemental way,” Ellis said. “Be her friend. Don’t walk away.”