Law Allows Victim Buttons In Murder Trials

Sunday, May 6th 2007, 1:32 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- To LaDonna Heintzelman, a bill to permit photo buttons of murder victims to be worn during trials is a matter of equality and a way to show a jury how her son appeared in life and not in a grisly crime scene.

The 45-year-old registered nurse wants people in the courtroom, including the jury, to see her son, Taylor, as the fun-loving 17-year-old he was before he was abducted and killed in Oklahoma City in 2005.

"He was always smiling," she said. "He was an outgoing child. His friends said he always made them laugh.”

“It's time for Oklahoma to be an example for other states. I'm sick and tired of hearing about the constitutional rights of the defendants."

She said jurors often only view crime scene photographs of a murder victim, while a defendant stands before them "all cleaned up, with a fresh hair cut and a nice new suit of clothes. Why is that not seen as a biased way to sway a jury?"

Others, however, fear the law could let convicted killers go free on appeal if photo buttons of victims are deemed to be prejudicial.

The bill awaiting Governor Brad Henry's signature appears to be the first of its kind in the nation, said Sarah Hammon, an expert on victims' rights legislation with the National Council of State Legislatures in Denver.

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., said he has never seen a law like this.

"It seems to lend support to the idea that the victim does have a place in the courtroom," said Rushford, whose organization advocates for families of murder victims in cases that land in the Supreme Court.

Called Taylor's law for Heintzelman's son, the bill was introduced by Senator Jim Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City.

Reynolds, who is not an attorney, said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a California murder case indicates to him that the buttons will pass legal muster.

A 2006 opinion written by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas reinstated the death penalty in the 1995 conviction of Matthew Musladin for the death of Thomas Studer, the boyfriend of Musladin's estranged wife.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed the conviction, determining that Musladin's rights had been violated because family members of the victim wore buttons during the trial displaying Studer's photo.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined the case and argued that the Ninth Circuit decision to overturn the murder conviction violated rules requiring federal courts to respect "reasonable" state court decisions that are not contrary to Supreme Court precedent.

Rushford said Thomas, in reinstating the death penalty against Musladin, agreed with lower court rulings that the photos were not unreasonable. Thomas, however, upheld the conviction on more narrow grounds and did not specifically decide the button issue.

A court challenge is likely if Henry signs the bill, Rushford said. A spokesman for Henry said the governor will not make a decision until he and his attorneys review the measure.

"It will be challenged because it is a new area of law and the Supreme Court did not specifically rule on the merits of photo buttons in the California case,” Rushford said.

Reynolds' bill would require courts to allow immediate family members of a murder victim to wear photo buttons in court that could be up to four inches in diameter.

Senator Richard Lerblance, D-McAlester, said the Legislature was overstepping by dictating what goes on in a courtroom. He said that was the role of the judicial system.

When the bill passed the House, 58-41, Representative John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, said it could be held to inflame emotions and make an appeal more likely "that is going to break some family's heart when some perpetrator gets out on a technicality because the jury was prejudiced by a button."

Representative Terry Hyman, D-Leon, whose daughter was murdered three years ago, opposed the bill. Hyman asked his colleagues to "protect the sanctity of the judicial process in this state by not allowing an opportunity for a criminal to go free on a prejudicial basis."

"There are numerous potential issues that could lead to an appeal if we allow these four-inch photos," said Representative Ben Sherrer, D-Pryor Creek. "If someone wears a five-inch button, it would actually be a violation of this law and a verdict could be set aside as a result."

If the bill becomes law, Heintzelman plans to be wearing a button of her son at the start of the trial of his alleged killer, scheduled in June.

She is banking on the Supreme Court eventually ruling that the buttons do not upset courtroom decorum.

"We just have to take our chances on this and hope to God that the right thing happens. If we don't do something, nothing is going to change."