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Talking Points

Question: Is a defendant, who is facing murder charges, deprived of his Constitutional right to a fair trial when spectators in the courtroom are permitted to wear buttons that display pictures of the deceased?

Carey (State of California)

Musladin (Defendant)

1. Should the victim's interests prevail over the defendant's right to a Fair Trial?

Affirmative. Yes. The victim's interests should prevail.

The victims in this case had a right to show their grief and demand justice by wearing buttons with a picture of their murdered loved one. They were not being disruptive in the courtroom, and they did not try to pressure the jury. The defendant's guilt or innocence is determined by the evidence presented at trial, not on the actions of spectators. Thus, the defendant's rights do not trump the spectator's rights in this case.

Negative. No. The defendant's rights should prevail.

While victims of violent crime certainly have a right to grieve, and to express this grief and demand justice in appropriate ways, they do not have a right to try to try to influence the outcome of a murder trial. Our judicial system is based upon the rule of law, not emotion. Victims' rights cannot be used as a means to undermine a defendant's constitutional rights in a criminal trial.

2. Should the spectators have been allowed to wear the lapel pins in court?

Affirmative. Yes.

There is no evidence that the mere wearing of buttons showing the picture of a murder victim during the alleged murderer's trial will unduly prejudice the jury. By the end of the trial, the jury knows the facts of the case, including the identity of the victim. Therefore, the spectators' actions will not come as a surprise. More importantly though, the jurors have taken an oath to judge the case on its merits, based solely on the testimony presented at trial. Every juror comes to a trial with some prejudices; however, our system survives because jurors can set aside these prejudices. There is no reason to believe that the jurors could not disregard any possible prejudices that arise from seeing the victim's face on a button when they had to decide the case.

Negative. No.

Common sense should dictate the outcome of this case. The spectators were members of the victim's family. They wore buttons showing a picture of the victim. Their intent clearly was to remind the jurors that their loved one had been murdered, and they expected justice. Given the circumstances, these are powerful images that could very easily influence the jurors' decision. Whether or not they did in actuality is beyond the point. The main point is that, as a precautionary measure, the court should have ordered the removal of the buttons.

3. Should the First Amendment be applied in this case?

Affirmative. Yes.

Although not properly briefed/discussed in this case, the First Amendment is still relevant. No one argues that the First Amendment protects the right of spectators and/or anyone else to actually disrupt a judicial proceeding. However, there is no reason why it should not protect "nondisruptive" behaviors, such as wearing small buttons showing the victim of a crime into a courtroom. This type of behavior would almost certainly be protected by the First Amendment in any other forum.

Negative. No.

The First Amendment was not properly briefed and/or discussed in this case. Therefore, it should not play a role in the outcome. Even if it had been free speech/expression concerns must yield to the right of a defendant to have a fair and impartial jury decide the case on its merits, not on emotions. Anything else risks turning criminal trials into kangaroo courts where the whim of the spectators - not justice - will be done.