Supreme Court Refuses to Reject Victim Impact Videos in Death Cases

Very little is more prejudicial in the penalty phase of a death case than a video of the victim's life set to music. Juries are instructed to base their decisions on reason rather than emotion, and then view a video, on a larger than life screen, depicting images of the victim and events in his or her life, as prepared by their family, set to music.

Today, the Supreme Court refused to reject the practice in two cases.

The order Monday comes in two California cases in which jurors were shown video montages of the victims' lives, in one instance set to music by Enya.

Three justices disagreed with the ruling: Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens. Justice Stevens' statement is here (pdf.)

"The videos added nothing relevant to the jury's deliberations and invited a verdict based on sentiment, rather than reasoned judgment," Stevens said.

You can watch one of the videos here.

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    No, they didn't (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by txpublicdefender on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 10:30:09 AM EST
    The Supreme Court did not "uphold" the practice.  They denied cert which has no precedential value whatsoever.  These particular cases stand, but that doesn't mean the Supreme Court has validated it.

    Good point (none / 0) (#2)
    by TChris on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 10:36:55 AM EST
    and just as well the Supremes didn't take the case since they probably would have upheld the videos by a 6-3 (or at best 5-4) vote. Victim impact videos are just theater disguised as evidence, designed to manipulate jurors by inducing fuzzy warm feelings about the victim.  Should punishment depend upon how likable the victim was?  I wonder how courts would feel about defense videos showing what a jerk the victim was.

    Thanks, I'll make that clear (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 11:00:05 AM EST
    But the effect is the same in my mind, they didn't invalidate it.

    the denial of cert provides the green light (none / 0) (#4)
    by befuddledvoter on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 11:03:46 AM EST
    to victim impact statements in all cases, I fear.  I cannot imagine a video clip set to music of the victim's life and the impact on loved ones.  This is horrible.  

    I agree with this (none / 0) (#6)
    by DancingOpossum on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 01:09:13 PM EST
    I've always been queasy about the role of victims' statements in sentencing. I recently read about a particularly hideous case in Texas that involved the brutal killing of a young girl and the dismemberment of her body. Yes, absolutely horrible in every way. But as sympathetic as I was to the family, and appalled by the murderer, I was taken aback to hear that as part of the sentencing trial, the victim's mother was allowed to deliver a statement to the murderer. In it she told him she hoped he burned in  hell and suffered agonies of remorse his whole life for what he had done. I agreed with her 100% but that seemed an oddly vindictive place for such a statement. Perhaps at the end of the criminal trial, but not as part of sentencing...In any case, the evidence would (by itself) have been enough to evoke the same feelings in any jury, so it also seemed unecessary. (BTW he got 55 years.)

    55 years (none / 0) (#8)
    by Jeralyn on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 02:55:19 PM EST
    is less than we give some non=violent, first time felony drug offenders. For an example of the injustice in action, there's one of my own cases, who had no prior felony convictions but got a life sentence on a conviction of 251 grams of crack. (I did not represent him at trial, only in his appeal.) The last words of the opinion affirming his conviction are:

        Although it is tragic for a twenty-three year-old to spend the rest of his life in prison, Congress has provided this penalty for drug crimes involving large quantities of cocaine. We must follow the law.

    Why shouldn't victim's videos be viewed during the sentencing process?

    Because it would "unfairly" influence those involved and the criminal would likely get a more severe sentence.

    Ok, so how do you make sure sentencing is all about reason and not about emotions?

    Well, the obvious answer is sentencing guidelines, but aren't they also unfair?


    kudos (none / 0) (#7)
    by wystler on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 01:34:15 PM EST
    ... for making me smile on such a somber topic.

    I guess it's pretty clear that our side needs at least three appointments to have a chance to get the Court back to where it belongs.

    3+ (none / 0) (#10)
    by txpublicdefender on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 03:45:07 PM EST
    We need three appointments, yes, but it won't help if they're just done to replace Souter, Ginsburg, and Stevens, as many seem to be predicting.  Unfortunately, the staunchly conservative members of the Court are young and likely to outlast an Obama presidency.  Of course, getting some younger progressive justices in there to take the place of the quite old Stevens, for example, would be important in at least keeping things where they are.  But, we're not going to be able to swing the court away from its recent conservative tilt without a surprise resignation or death (which I certainly don't intend this post to be taken as wishing for) of a justice.

    3+? (none / 0) (#11)
    by wystler on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 04:21:36 PM EST
    Stephens is 88
    Ginsburg is 75
    Scalia & Kennedy are 72
    Breyer is 70
    Souter is 69
    Thomas is 60
    Alito is 58
    Roberts is 53

    Stephens' retirement is a virtual certainty. Expect announcement in less than two months. Rumors have been out there about Ginsburg wanting to retire for a while. That makes two with no net change.

    So I guess it's up to four and counting.


    How about videos (none / 0) (#12)
    by ChrisO on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 08:17:44 PM EST
    from the family of the accused? His pastor could talk about what a regular churchgoer he was, and his kids could talk tearfully about their fears of growing up without a father. I think people would suddenly have a big problem with emotional appeals.