Victims photo law was labor of love

Monday, April 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Photographs of their slain daughter are mounted on walls and perched on tabletops in John and Betty LeGrange's home in southwest Oklahoma City.

For them, the snapshots are constant reminders of Kristie LeGrange's life: A devoutly religious woman who was devoted to her parents, her sister and her brother, a dedicated family therapist whose concern for her clients often outweighed her concern for herself.

``She loved helping people. That's what she's all about,'' Betty LeGrange said.

``She was beautiful: Tall, blonde, blue eyes, athletic,'' said John LeGrange. ``You can't imagine how busy that little girl is ... was.''

The LeGranges wanted to share some of what the photos reveal to them by showing one to jurors at the murder trial of the man accused of beating her to death.

But prosecutors said that was not possible in Oklahoma. State judges had ruled that showing a victim's photograph to jurors could create prejudice against the defendant and prevent him from receiving a fair trial.

It was a setback for the LeGranges that left them upset, angry and frustrated.

``I was just shocked that we couldn't display her photo,'' Betty LeGrange said.

``Our daughter was beaten terribly about the head. All the jurors would see is gruesome photographs,'' John LeGrange said. Kristie LeGrange, 26, a home-based family therapist, was beaten to death with a brick by one of her clients in July 2000.

``It seems like everything's geared to protect the defendant. We just feel like we have gone too far,'' he said.

The LeGranges wanted to do something to preserve the memory of their slain daughter. What they accomplished is a landmark victims rights law that will permit the photos of homicide victims as they appeared in life to be admitted as evidence at the trials of their assailants.

``This is one way of honoring our daughter,'' John LeGrange said. ``Whether we can use it or not, unfortunately, there will be others.''

The legislation, entitled The Kristie LeGrange Act, was signed into law by Gov. Frank Keating after passing the House and Senate.

It will go into effect Nov. 1 _ too late to be used in the prosecution of Kristie LeGrange's killer.

The defendant, James McCall Chance, 18, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last month and agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

At least six other states, including Texas and Louisiana, have laws that permit the photographs of homicide victims to be shown to jurors at murder trials.

Getting a law passed in Oklahoma became crucial for the LeGranges.

The couple and other victims' rights advocates sent e-mails, made phone calls and personally visited lawmakers to express support for the bill.

Personal appeals were delivered to lawmakers' offices along with photographs of Kristie LeGrange.

``It made some kind of impression,'' John LeGrange said. Only one out of 149 members of the Legislature cast a vote against it during the process.

Supporters said the new law will help balance victims' rights with those of defendants.

``We already have a constitutional right for a victim to be in a courtroom. This is just an extension of that,'' said the measure's author, House Minority Leader Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City.

``For so long, we have honored the criminal by allowing him to present his best self in the courtroom,'' Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane said.

Courts have been reluctant to permit jurors to see evidence ``that this victim was a living, breathing, vibrant individual. That just wasn't fair,'' Lane said.

But the president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Jack Dempsey Pointer, characterized the law as ``a stupid piece of legislation'' and predicted it will be struck down as unconstitutional.

``It is the most prejudicial piece of legislation I have seen come from the Oklahoma Legislature in years,'' Pointer said.

Pointer said the defense lawyers association has agreed to provide legal help to the first homicide defendant who is convicted after a victims photograph was shown to jurors at his trial.

``The appellate court is going to have to deal with it,'' he said.

State law requires jurors to ignore sympathy or prejudice toward the victim or the defendant when deciding guilt or innocence.

``Now we have a law that says we have a photo of the victim,'' he said. ``Can you think of anything that is more prejudicial or would cause more sympathy?''

Pointer said prosecutors will exploit the new law to their advantage, ``especially in weak cases.''

``They will push it as far as the judge will allow them. My God, you don't have a chance from the get-go. It's horrible,'' he said.

Lane said he believes the new law can withstand appellate scrutiny as long as victims photographs are not used to inflame jurors.

``The presentation alone should not be enough to cause a case to be reversed,'' he said.

Morgan said it is part of the Legislature's duties to determine what evidence is appropriate to be introduced in state courts.

``Our criminal justice system is not only about determining guilt and innocence. It is a process by which we resolve conflict,'' Morgan said.

``Victims are an integral part of that process. They should not be forgotten.''

Morgan said The Kristie LeGrange Act was ``one of the most personally rewarding things that I've ever done.''

``It was an opportunity to help two people who were very, very hurt and for something good to come out of a tragic situation,'' he said.