Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Photos and a Fair Trial - New York Times

a times editorial on a curious case of photography (maybe) swaying a jury.

Photos and a Fair Trial - New York Times: "When Mathew Musladin went on trial for murder, members of the victim’s family sat near the jury every day wearing buttons with the dead man’s photograph. A federal appeals court held that those buttons in the courtroom deprived Mr. Musladin of a fair trial. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments in his case today. It should affirm the appeals court’s ruling.

Mr. Musladin shot his estranged wife’s fianc�in an altercation that he argued was justifiable self-defense. Before the trial began, Mr. Musladin’s lawyer asked the judge to tell the family to remove the buttons. Mr. Musladin was convicted on all counts.

Mr. Musladin went to federal court to argue that he had been denied a fair trial. The San Francisco-based United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed, holding that the jury’s sympathies may have been unfairly swayed by the photos of the victim worn by his grieving relatives.

The court relied on a Supreme Court ruling that a defendant’s right to a fair trial was denied when he was forced to wear prison garb and shackles in sight of the jury, with its subliminal message of guilt. It also relied on its own earlier decision that a defendant in a sexual assault case was denied a fair trial when courtroom spectators were allowed to wear buttons proclaiming “Women Against Rape.”

As those cases recognized, physical materials in a courtroom that send a message run the risk of prejudicing the jury against the defendant.

At Mr. Musladin’s trial, the key question was whether he or the man who died was the aggressor. As the appeals court recognized, the buttons were effectively an argument by the people who wore them that the dead man was the victim. The correct place for that argument to be made was on the witness stand, by competent and duly sworn witnesses. It should not have been allowed from the audience.

The most difficult legal issue in the case involves the standard that federal courts use in second-guessing state court convictions. Under the relevant federal statute, the state court’s decision can be set aside only if it was an unreasonable application of “clearly established” federal law. The government argues that the appeals court’s ruling that the photographs were prejudicial was not clearly established.

It is true the Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the issue of photographs worn by courtroom spectators. But the court’s decision in the prison garb case laid down a standard clear enough for the trial judge to have known that the buttons worn at Mr. Musladin’s trial denied him his constitutional rights."

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