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Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly

Authors

Elizabeth Lyon

Abstract

Spectators at criminal jury trials have displayed photographs of a deceased victim inside the courtroom on items such as on buttons, T-shirts, or collages. Courts have recognized that these photographs simply function as grief occasioned by the loss of a victim. Consequently, courts have allowed photographs inside the courtroom, like many other emotional expressions of spectators that are permissible.

This Note argues that victim photographs in the courtroom go beyond an ordinary showing of emotion, serving to elicit sympathy from jurors and calling on them to vindicate the victim's loss. For these reasons, such photographs violate a criminal defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial. Yet state courts have routinely allowed spectators to display photographs of the victim during a criminal defendant's jury trial, even over the defense's objection, infringing on the right of the defendant to obtain a fair trial by an impartial jury under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. Recently, in Carey v. Musladin, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the effect spectators have on a defendant's fair trial rights by bringing photographs of the victim into the courtroom was a matter of first impression. In the absence of Supreme Court precedent, state courts continue to allow in such photographs. Further, federal courts may not grant relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") where criminal defendant's rights have been violated in state court on such grounds.

This Note suggests that the Supreme Court should adopt a rule prohibiting spectators from displaying victim photographs in the courtroom during a criminal defendant's jury trial. First, this Note assesses the Court's decision in Musladin and other state court decisions dealing with victim photographs inside the courtroom. Next, this Note addresses the history and importance of the criminal defendant's fair trial rights under the Sixth Amendment, including the right to an impartial jury, and argues that displays of a victim's photograph in the courtroom infringe on these rights. Moreover, this Note will address the First Amendment and the state's interest in allowing victims an outlet to express their emotions including grief and solidarity with the victim. Finally, this Note suggests that because of the need to ensure defendants are afforded their constitutional right to a fair trial, the Supreme Court should adopt a rule prohibiting spectators from displaying photographs of the victim during a criminal jury trial.

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