Good Example Of Whether The Video Prejudiced The Jury? Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Criminal Justice, Crime, Supreme Court, Court, Discrimination, Victim, Sexual Abuse, Victimology

Pages: 8

Words: 2200

Published: 2020/12/16

Victim Impact Statements

Victim Impact Statements
A Victim Impact Statement is a description of how a crime has affected the particular victim or the family of the victim. This statement could be a written statement, a video, an audio clip or other form of information given to the court. Such statements are usually presented by the prosecution in support of the case. Ideally, these statements can be considered during sentencing, especially in those cases where the crime is heinous in nature or where there is an irreparable loss that has caused or might cause untold financial hardships. As per the rules, these statements are not mandatory and the details of the crime as well as the profile of the accused need not be included.
Recently debates have sprung up if these statements have the potential to prejudice a jury. The higher courts have not even set limitations or rules which the trial courts can adhere to while handling this issue. Therefore, most trial courts also allow such statements to be produced in court without duly assessing their effects on the jury. In most cases, the Supreme Court seems to have deliberately ignored appeals in this regard and have chosen to maintain a stoic silence on this issue. Lastly, the Supreme Court has also not duly considered the inclusion of such statements in capital punishment cases since, almost always, this kind of videos result in juries convicting the accused and handing out death penalties. All these points clearly point to the fact that this aspect must be debated and a fair process must be evolved by our judicial authorities so that someday a possibly innocent man should not be sent to his death based on the emotional state of mind of the juries after having viewed or read such a statement.
This essay will discuss if in the case of Douglas Kelly the video prepared by the Weir family might have prejudiced the jury. The essay will then proceed to argue that the Supreme Court’s decision on this subject was not fair and that the court should have at least given the defendant a fair hearing. Lastly, the essay will also endeavor to provide the points that a victim impact statement should contain and the content that one should avoid in such a statement.

The jury convicted Douglas Kelly for the murder, rape and robbery of nineteen year old
Sara Weir. During the penalty phase (after the victim’s mother’s testimony), the court permitted the prosecution to play a short video montage of images of Weir that contained assorted images, pictures and video recordings of Sara’s life from birth till her death. Sara’s mother recounted the entire story to the accompaniment of soft music in the backdrop. The video concluded with a shot of Sara Weir’s grave followed by scenes of people riding horses. In the video, Weir’s mother described this as the kind of heaven her daughter deserved. (H&Y Pet, 2008, p. 3) Kelly was soon sentenced to the death penalty and his objection to the admission of the videotape was overruled by the trial court. A direct appeal to the California Supreme Court found that there was no prejudicial error in the admission of the videotape. The court felt this was the case since the judges did not see anything wrong in the video since the victim impact statement, in this case, did not exceed the bounds as laid down by earlier precedents. The Supreme Court in most of the earlier cases permitted victim impact statements during trials since the Court found that the display of such statements did not amount to a violation of the Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (H&Y Pet, 2008, p. 6)
One can now examine this process independently of the review process adopted by the Supreme Court. It would be prudent to consider aspects of both natural justice as well as ethical morality in order to arrive at whether victim impact statement prejudices the jury. The main function of the jury is to determine the probable culpability of an accused by taking into consideration specific evidences or facts that led to the commission of the crime. The jury is specifically instructed and is mostly isolated from any media sources or prohibited from talking to others regarding the case, lest the jury gets prejudiced. In such a case, victim impact statements that have highly emotional content can be disastrous for the jury’s decision making capability. Any victim statement, however neutral in nature would have some level of a subtle emotional appeal. In the reply filed by Kelly’s lawyers to the opposition by the Prosecutors, they state that some limit must be set on the victim impact evidence to be admitted. The Prosecutors stand that victim impact evidences should be wholly admitted without the necessity to review by a higher judicial authority is also erroneous.
As per principles of natural justice, the duty of the court (specifically of the judge) is to ensure a trial that is not only fair but also one that is not unduly retributive in nature. Such a trial should also not be unfair and should not have clauses or provisions that put the defendant at an undue advantage. Considering this, I feel that the victim impact statement, particularly the video and the method in which it was made with the specific soft music and the imagery had the potential to unduly the prejudice the jury. Such a prejudiced jury might not have delivered the fair judgment leading to an unfair trial and a possible violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. Further, the statement filed by the prosecution seems to trivialize the fundamentals of the Eighth Amendment, which is something that the defense has also pointed out in its reply. In this case, particularly, the impact statement had the potential to determine if a man would be put to death or would survive. The topic, I feel, is highly contentious since a balance must be struck between the victim’s rights and justice to the victim as well as the rights of the accused.
As per the principles of morality, the victim or one of their family members should be allowed to issue video impact statements, since morality dictates that the victim should be allowed to voice their feelings or opinion for a fair conduct of the trial. However, the trial court must review these statements before admitting them or before showing such statements to the jury or an open courtroom. The trial court must assess if such statements have the potential to unduly influence the jury and thus lead them to pronounce a decision or penalty based on the subtle emotional messages that such statements encompass. One other option would be to show the victim impact statement at the very start of the trial so that the emotional content amongst the jury members is diluted by the time the trial ends. Such an arrangement would be well within the provisions of law and yet be moral in nature since the rights of all parties would be preserved.

Fairness of the Supreme Court Decision

Having considered the effect of the victim impact statement on the jury, this essay will now consider whether the Supreme Court took a correct decision of choosing to refrain from hearing out this case.
Firstly, as per the statement of Justice Breyer (2008), the Honorable Judge initially agrees that victim impact statements are to be used as useful guiding tools for the jury so that they understand the real impact of the crime beyond the legal process. (Breyer, p.1) However, J. Breyer has reservations about these statements since when such statements are made in particular formats, for instance employing particular imagery, music and subtle emotional content, there is always a danger of the jury getting prejudiced, thus leading to a violation of due process. He states that the decision of a death penalty must be taken based on the facts, evidences and reason rather than caprice or emotion. (Breyer, 2008, p. 2) He comes very close to labeling the said video as duly emotional, but refrains by remarking that the judiciary must review this subject. He, however, feels that the court must grant certiorari.
One can now consider the statement of Justice Stevens, who preferred to deny the certiorari. Justice Stevens mentions the California Supreme Court decision as follows, “The court explained that the video admitted during Kelly’s sentencing “expressed no outrage” and contained no “clarion call for vengeance,” but “just implied sadness.” (Stevens, 2008, p. 2) The judge further laments the fact that the higher courts did not lay down specific guidelines for the consideration of victim impact statements for the benefit of the lower courts. This led to lower courts deciding on grounds other than reason and logic. Justice Stevens (2008) clearly accepts that “lower courts throughout the country have largely failed to place clear limits on the scope, quantity, or kind of victim impact evidence capital juries are permitted to consider.” (p. 6) In essence, Justice Stevens does agree with the fact that victim impact evidence adds nothing relevant to the jury’s deliberations and invites a verdict based on sentiment, rather than reasoned judgment. (p. 7) Therefore, although Justice Stevens denies the certiorari, he does feel that the time had indeed come for the higher judiciary to lay down specific guidelines for use by trial judges that would help determine the nature of victim impact statements and their admissibility.
After reading the view of Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer, one cannot help but think about the fairness of the Supreme Court decision in not hearing the petition. As before, the Supreme Court may have acted in haste in this case since their denial of the certiorari immediately meant that Kelly was now much closer to the death penalty. If one examines this situation from the principles of natural justice, one understands that the judges were duty bound by justice to give the man a fair hearing. One could argue that by denying this, the Supreme Court may have committed a travesty of justice since the petition was constitutional and fundamental in nature. The court could have easily chosen to hear the petition and then deny the retrial or withdrawal of the video as an evidence consideration, by stating valid reasons for the same. Such an action would have ensured that justice would have been complete with respect to all parties concerned. Further, the judges could have utilized this opportunity to lay down guidelines for victim impact statements in the future.
Through this decision, however, the Supreme Court not only jeopardized the commission of justice in this case, but also for other cases that would come up for hearing in the future. An innocent man who might be framed or wrongly accused could be easily sent to the gallows based on a jury’s emotional turn due to a victim impact video or the like. This is one of the biggest dangers in the use of victim impact statements in capital cases. Therefore, I feel strongly, at least in capital cases the Supreme Court should have either disallowed victim impact statements or, in the least, laid down stringent guidelines for the benefit of the lower courts.

In the light of the above discussion, the main question arises as to what exactly should a victim impact statement contain? This essay will consider the basic guidelines that a trial judge must use in order to determine if a certain victim impact statement could prejudice the jury. In doing so, the essay will begin with the assumption that video victim impact statements are permitted in court.
In such a case, the trial court judge must ensure that such a video will not unduly influence the jury by making them emotional to such an extent that the rigor of the legal process fails. At the same time, the judge must take into consideration the fact that the victim impact statement is the only way in which the jury can see the impact of the crime upon the victim and the family. This is a task that is tough and the guidelines for the content of such videos must be regulated.
The second important point is that courts must restrict testimony from close family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers in the form of poems, photographs, hand-crafted items, and multimedia video presentations. (Stevens, 2008, p. 6) Justice Stevens states that each and every one of these objects or statements are powerful in any form leading to a preconceived notions about the accused since most jury members directly relate to the victim and their family’s emotional state. This precludes them from objectively evaluating the case and its merit based on reason and logic. Therefore, the trial court must ensure that video impact statements must not contain any objects, things or materials that might sway the jury emotionally and jeopardize the trial.
Instead, the court could allow the video impact statement to contain bits and pieces of the life of the victim with a narrator who is not related to the victim’s family by any degree. Such videos should also be prohibited from displaying artistic images or music. The court should literally treat the video akin to a written statement that is read out loudly in the court rather than something which is deliberately and willfully made emotional to sway the jury. In doing so, the emotional aspect will still not go away, but the visual and auditory effects that enhance a person’s emotions would definitely be kept in check. As an additional precaution, the court should show the video impact statement at the beginning of the trial. It is natural that by the time the actual processes, arguments, rebuttals and examination of evidences are over, the emotional effects of the statements would have sufficiently diminished. In such a case, as expected, the jury would then be able to give a sound and reasonable judgment.

Conclusion

One can conclude from the above that the video impact statement prepared by the Weir family definitely played a pivotal role in prejudicing the jury into awarding a death sentence to Kelly. A large part of the reason for this to happen is the trial courts who claim to have no guidance on the subject from the higher courts in the judicial system. The Supreme Court too did not fairly rule on this subject since it allowed potentially emotional material to be displayed in front of the jury. The surprising thing is that the Supreme Court judges do recognize the legal issues with allowing such videos into the courtroom, but for some reason they did not intervene in their judicial capacity. One could argue that this might be a possible travesty of justice. Having said that, the court should have at least heard the case since that would have provided the court an opportunity to lay down guidelines for admissibility of victim impact statements, but it didn’t so either. In sum, the trial courts must ensure that such victim impact statements should be plain, narrated by a third party and should be devoid of unduly emotional artistry, music or any objects that might prejudice the jury. The trial courts should also ensure that such videos are displayed to the jury before the trial commences so that the emotional effect is greatly diminished until the conclusion of the trial.

Reference

Brown, Edmund et.al. (2008) BRIEF IN OPPOSITION TO PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI. Retrieved from http://federalevidence.com/blog/2008/november/supreme-court-declines-hear-two-cases- limits-victim-impact-evidence
Hersek, Micheal and Young, Eugenie. (2008) (H&Y Pet) PETITION FOR A WRIT OF CERTIORARI. Retrieved from http://federalevidence.com/blog/2008/november/supreme-court-declines-hear-two-cases- limits-victim-impact-evidence
Hersek, Micheal and Young, Eugenie. (2008) (H&Y Reply) REPLY TO OPPOSITION TO PETITION FOR A WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA. Retrieved from http://federalevidence.com/blog/2008/november/supreme-court-declines-hear-two-cases- limits-victim-impact-evidence
Justice. Stevens. (2008). Statement of Stevens J on petition for writs of certiorari. Retrieved from http://federalevidence.com/blog/2008/november/supreme-court-declines-hear-two-cases- limits-victim-impact-evidence
Justice. Breyer. (2008). Statement of Breyer J on petition for writs of certiorari. Retrieved from http://federalevidence.com/blog/2008/november/supreme-court-declines-hear-two-cases- limits-victim-impact-evidence

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