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Should videos of victims lives be used in courts?

posted 12/1/2008 2:32:11 AM |
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WASHINGTON -- The images are those of any childhood: a toddler wearing a snowsuit; a young boy fishing with his dad; a teenager mugging for the camera with his friends. Green Day's modern prom-night classic Time of Your Life plays in the background.

But Jesse Heller never made it to his prom; he was killed by a drunken driver in 2006.

Still, the video memorializing his life has special resonance for the family of the Minnesota teen. When prosecutors asked to show it in court, his parents quickly agreed. Testifying, they felt, was just too hard.

"Everybody had tears in their eyes, even the security guards," Jesse's mother, Dawn Heller, said of the DVD that helped secure a 22-year prison term for the man who broadsided her son's truck at a stop sign on Mother's Day. "I believe it had an impact."

That's just the point. Fueled by technology and a powerful victims'-rights movement, "victim impact videos" are becoming staples in criminal trials nationwide. The increasingly sophisticated multimedia presentations depict victims from cradle to grave, often with soft music in the background, tugging on the heartstrings of jurors. Defense lawyers say the videos are highly prejudicial and have sought to have them banned.

But the Supreme Court declined this month to hear challenges to two such videos, including one of Sara Weir, a dark-eyed 19-year-old who was raped and murdered in 1993. The video contains more than 90 photos of Weir and is set to the haunting tones of Enya.

As a result of the court's decision, experts say the use of such videos probably will accelerate in coming years.

"The publicity from the Supreme Court cases is going to make more victims and prosecutors aware of the possibility of technology-aided victim-impact statements," said Margaret Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. "And I think that's a good thing."

Prosecutors vigorously defend the videos, which are presented as part of "victim impact evidence" in death-penalty and noncapital homicides and are usually put together by families, sometimes with help from law enforcement or funeral homes.

With defendants able to present extensive "mitigating evidence," prosecutors say multimedia is often the best way to document the life that was extinguished and the pain of those left behind.

"You're talking about

20 minutes that actually lets the jury see these people walking and breathing and moving," said Matt Murphy, a prosecutor in Orange County, Calif., who helped splice together a 25-minute video of Tom and Jackie Hawks, killed in what authorities called a plot to steal their yacht. Jurors recommended the death penalty this month for defendant Skylar Deleon after seeing the video, which was culled from home movies and shows the couple smiling and swimming during their final vacation and holding their infant grandchild.

"I can see why these videos drive defense lawyers crazy because they actually balance things out," Murphy said.

Evan Young, the lawyer who failed to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the Weir video challenge, said she thinks they tilt the scales against defendants.

"Without limits on the use of this technology," she wrote in her brief, "capital trials become theatrical venues, and the determination whether a defendant receives a death sentence turns on the skill of a videographer."

The 20-minute video in that case documents virtually the entire life of Weir, who was killed by a man she befriended at a fitness center. Narrated by Weir's mother, it shows Weir smiling as an infant, dressing for Halloween, sitting with Santa Claus, singing in junior high school and graduating from high school. It ends with pictures of her grave and horsemen riding across the countryside, described as "the kind of heaven" where Weir belongs.

The California Supreme Court upheld the use of the video in the sentencing phase of the case, in which Douglas Oliver Kelly received the death penalty.

That court also upheld a video showing 118 photos of Elmer Benson, 79, and his wife, Gladys, 74. They were stabbed to death in their home in 1996.

Narrated by their daughter, it closes by showing the markers on their graves, each adorned with a single red rose.

The assailant, Samuel Zamudio, was sentenced to death.

Both men sought Supreme Court review, but the high court on Nov. 10 declined to take either case. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a blistering statement objecting to the denials, while Justice David Souter said he would have accepted the Weir case. Justice Stephen Breyer issued a more mildly worded dissent.

"As these cases demonstrate, when victim impact evidence is enhanced with music, photographs, or video footage, the risk of unfair prejudice quickly becomes overwhelming," wrote Stevens, an opponent of capital punishment.

This is from The Washington Post

What do you all think, should these personal videos of the victims be allowed in the courts?

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Dec 1 @ 2:42AM  
My thoughts on this is that I think videos of victims should be used in courts. To me that's justice served on a silver platter as far as the criminal(s) getting the maxium sentence possible by the juries across the country. I think this is a great idea to do.

Dec 1 @ 4:20AM  
An interesting dilemma...

Dec 1 @ 5:38AM  
I dunno...Man...that would make it hard on the Person convicted in some cases sure.. plz do, but sposin what ever happened was an accident? just saying... I wouldnt wanna be on the recieving end, thats for sure! (if they used that tactic..of "Playing" on the Hearts of the Jurors!)
An interesting dilemma
for sure!!!!

Dec 1 @ 5:49AM  
hang 'em high. string 'em up. right then there. right to a speedy trial.
bill of rights. the right for the bad guys to die right now.
you think that is cool. dig this, soon to come electronic mind-reading
surveillance admissible in court. to see whose thought the crime
really was? it was the thought that caused the crime.
now we're really see who the real culprit is. and get to the bottom
and top of it all. stay tuned,its gonna get wild, for those who
made girls gone wild. the 'blackout' phenomenon. chinese
lady peeks face during filming. chinese espionage case.
where is charlie chan?

Dec 1 @ 6:09AM  
Emotion often skews logic. Trials should be about law and the scientific method, ie did this person do what he is accused of and how.

Sure you get more guilty verdicts and harsher sentences, but that doesn't mean you have more guilty people in prison serving longer sentences...

Keep the emotional crap out of the courtroom. Cooler heads should prevail.

Imagine if every trial was like the o.j. simpson trial. Thats what we are talking about here. Theatrical bullshit that can hide the truth from a jury. A thousand West Memphis Three witch trials.

"In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls." -- Lenny Bruce


Dec 1 @ 7:03AM  
I'm with Beefy on this one.

Dec 1 @ 7:26AM  
There are pros and cons to this. I can certainly see your point of view on this, Beefy, but I also know that if my mom, daughter, and/or a family member of mine was murdered, or even involved in a fatal traffic accident where the other person was at fault, I would want to show a video of their life for more than just getting a tougher sentencing for that person. I would want to put a face of life on my relative(s) to that jury to what I and others have lost. What if your mother or father, or sibbling, or child even was wouldn't want to show a video of them in court for any reason?

Dec 1 @ 8:05AM  
Yes, I think that they should be shown....I would want them to know what will be forever missing in my life because of the choice that they made. Does it make things emotional? yes. is that a bad thing? I don't think so. The jury and everyone else will see how the loss of that person(s) has and will continue to affect my emotions for the rest of my life. And they need to see what kind of person that was taken from me. Just my opinion, for what it's worth.

Dec 1 @ 8:41AM  
Well if I read this right...and I'm not awake yet so maybe I didn't....but doesn't it say the trial is already over and the person found guilty and these videos are used for the sentencing of that person?

These videos aren't being used to convict a defendent and they shouldn't be. A verdict should be arrived at based on facts and evidence.

But once convicted, found guilty then I see no probably with the jurors seeing these videos. Not only should the jury have a face put on the victim but the guilty party should see and have to live with that video image in their minds.

Too often a defendant's rights are so protected that the victim of their crime becomes inconsequential, lost in all the legal sparring. The jury...and the guilty party needs to see what a horrible impact the loss of this REAL person has had on a family.

Dec 1 @ 10:22AM  
Those should be played at a funeral, not in court.

Dec 1 @ 11:38AM  
I agree with softie.......if the person is already convicted of the crime then what's the harm!! I think it gives validation to the families of the victims, and I believe their voices should be heard!! The person who took their life should see exactly what they have taken away from the loved ones.

Dec 1 @ 2:24PM  
But once convicted, found guilty then I see no probably with the jurors seeing these videos. Not only should the jury have a face put on the victim but the guilty party should see and have to live with that video image in their minds.

Exactly Softie, I totally agree. Let that victim have a "say" at the impact hearing.

Dec 16 @ 12:33AM  
I've seen several of these videos played at sentencings, not the actual trials themselves. It's during the penalty phase, when we would normally hear victim impact statements. And yes the entire room usually gets pretty emotional during these presentations. However no more so than sitting listening to a sole survivor of a horrifying accident caused by a drunk driver, testify how after the accident she crawled across the smoke filled highway, covered with broken glass to find her husband dead in a ditch, crawled further to find her dying 10 year old son. How she held his broken bleeding body in her arms while the life slipped away from him. Or how her 10 year old niece died scared and alone in that ER before her parents could get there. Sometimes the videos aren't nearly as emotional as live testimony. However they do play an important part in showing the victim as a living, breathing, human being with a life that has been ended in some tragic manner. I firmly believe they should be shown at every opportunity during penalty phases.

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Should videos of victims lives be used in courts?