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July 30, 2011

NJ Supreme Court expresses concerns about victim-impact videos at sentencing

As detailed in this lengthy local piece, headlined "Court ruling troubling for victim-impact videos," last week a "New Jersey Supreme Court decision in the case of a Burlington Township woman who killed her police-officer husband in 1999 addressed the issue of victim-impact statements at sentencing hearings, in particular the 'video tributes' played in court for homicide victims."   Here is more about the ruling and its possible impact:

In its July 21 ruling, the high court said defendant Marie Hess was denied her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel when her defense attorney did not object to a video played at her sentencing that included popular and religious music, a photo of James Hess' tombstone, and footage of his funeral.

"At sentencing, no one questions that a family member can make a statement about a homicide victim or present photographs or even a video showing the victim as he or she lived in the time before his or her death.  The issue is whether there are any limits to the type of video that can be displayed at sentencing," the court wrote.

The court found "the music and the photographs of the victim's childhood and of his tombstone, and the television segment about his funeral, do not project anything meaningful about the victim's life at the time of his death," the opinion said, adding that they should have been redacted because they had "little to no probative value (but) instead have the great capacity to unduly arouse or inflame emotions."

The decision had immediate impact on the trial courts.  In Burlington County, Superior Court Judge Jeanne T. Covert referenced the decision during a vehicular-homicide sentencing, saying she had viewed a video produced by the victim's family and, because it was short and did not include music, she would allow it to be played in the courtroom....

Richard Pompelio, executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center, called the Supreme Court decision troubling.   Pompelio said part of the victims' rights laws, passed in New Jersey in 1991, are a way to give the victim "a voice, a face, and a presence in the courtroom," not influence or prejudice a sentencing.

"I wish the Supreme Court knew the history and understood the importance of victim rights," he said. "Sentencing is really the only time the victim and his survivors have that voice, and they have been able to do that at the sound discretion of the trial judge.  And it has worked."  Even before the high court decision, a trial judge could order a video to be edited....

Advocates worry that a cautious judiciary without clear guidelines of what is allowed and what isn't could shelve victim-impact videos in some courtrooms.  "Judges tend to err on the side of caution, and they do not want to be overturned and, for the matter, to come back for re-sentencing," Pompelio said.  "The question is, will they throw the baby out with the bath water? That would be unfair and unjust."

The full New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in this Hess case is available at this link.

July 30, 2011 at 01:28 AM | Permalink

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"Advocates worry that a cautious judiciary without clear guidelines of what is allowed and what isn't could shelve victim-impact videos in some courtrooms. "Judges tend to err on the side of caution, and they do not want to be overturned and, for the matter, to come back for re-sentencing," Pompelio said. "The question is, will they throw the baby out with the bath water? That would be unfair and unjust."

No. That would be legally complicated, complicated enough to require that victims be represented. That is the main motivation behind the victim impact movement. Victim Impact is a Trojan Horse for Lawyer Rent Seeking. The average juror has lost a loved one, and understands already how upsetting that is.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 30, 2011 5:04:01 AM

One has to note that no lawyer will actually advocate that the number of crime victims be reduced. That is the sole , sincere victim advocacy. Perhaps it is self-evident and need not be said. Such genuine advocacy would reduce lawyer employment, especially if all the violent criminals are killed at a young age,

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 30, 2011 5:12:32 AM

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