Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Can Buttons be Unfair to Murderers

“The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that family members wearing buttons bearing the image of their slain loved one did not compromise his killer's right to a fair trial.” Victim Images Did Not Mar Trial, Justices Rule - washingtonpost.com

Reading that, your first reaction may be: “That went to the Supreme Court?” The facts of the case are amazingly simple. Mathew Musladin admitted to killing Tom Studer, who happened to be Mr. Musladin’s estranged wife's boyfriend. He claimed self-defense; the jury didn’t buy it and convicted him of 1st degree murder. Apparently during the trial members of Mr. Studer’s family wore buttons with his picture on it and Mr. Musladin felt this impinged on his right to a fair trial.

The California Court of appeals didn’t agree which meant it went next to the federal courts, meaning it eventually ended up at the Ninth Circuit. Now anyone with even a passing interest in such things knows of the Ninth Circuit’s reputation for being the most overturned Circuit in the land. I don’t think it too much of a stretch to say that without the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court could probably wait until March to start their term…and still finish by June. Anyway, doing nothing to disappoint their fans, the Ninth ruled that poor Mr. Musladin had been unfairly impacted.

..which brought us to the Supreme Court and a dose of common sense.

Post writer Robert Barnes however seems uncomfortable with the decision, perhaps because it was authored by Justice Thomas “…for the six-member majority.”

Actually all nine agreed to the decision and strangely Mr. Barnes spends more ink discussing Justice Souter’s and Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinions. But he concludes with this dig at the decision;

“But Thomas said the Supreme Court's only established law about inherently prejudicial actions involves government-sponsored acts, such as requiring defendants to wear prison uniforms or stationing uniformed guards nearby. He said the "spectator conduct to which Musladin objects is an open question in our jurisprudence."

“And it is one still specifically unanswered in the narrowly written decision in the case, Carey v. Musladin05-785.”

Here’s the whole quote from the decision:

“In contrast to state-sponsored courtroom practices, the effect on a defendant's fair-trial rights of the spectator conduct to which Musladin objects is an open question in our jurisprudence. This Court has never addressed a claim that such private-actor courtroom conduct was so inherently prejudicial that it deprived a defendant of a fair trial.”

I don’t want to get all inside baseball here but the only question before the court was whether the California courts actions “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1).”

Because the Court had never addressed such a claim, it is hard to see how the California courts were in contrast to “clearly established Federal law”. As Justice Thomas succinctly concludes:

No holding of this Court required the California Court of Appeal to apply the test of Williams and Flynn to the spectators' conduct here. Therefore, the state court's decision was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”

As usual Justice Thomas gets it right without the meanderings that bog down other *cough* Justice Kennedy *cough* Justices.

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