Supreme Court Hears Case on Photos of Victim

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether a crime victim's family has the right to sit in court wearing buttons with pictures of the victim. Defense attorneys say such displays could prejudice the jury.

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The Supreme Court today takes up a case testing whether the family of a murder victim prejudiced the accused murderer's trial by wearing buttons displaying the victim's photo.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that having armed uniformed guards in the courtroom is not enough to prejudice a defendant's trial. But the court has also ruled that having defendants wear prison clothing does impermissibly prejudice the trial. Now comes the question of whether spectators may wear things like buttons, t-shirts or other things that support the prosecution or defense.

The case to be heard this morning involves a violent confrontation between the accused, Matthew Musladin, and his estranged wife Pamela. On May 13, 1994, Musladin, who'd been involved in a custody dispute with his wife, arrived at Pamela's home to pick up his three-year-old son. After placing the boy in his car, Musladin got into an argument with his wife in front of the house. And Pamela alleges that when Musladin threw her to the ground, she called for help from her brother and her fiancé, Tom Studer, who were inside the house.

The two men came running. And according to the trial testimony, Musladin then reached into his car, pulled out a gun and shot Studer in the back. Still able to move, Studer ran to the garage and rolled under a car, where he was shot in the head and killed by Musladin. Meanwhile, Pamela leaped over a fence and ran away. And her brother ran into the house, locked himself in the bathroom and called 911.

At trial, Musladin claimed that he acted in self-defense; that Pamela's brother had a machete and Studer a gun. But police said neither man had been armed. When it came time for the case to go to trial, Tom Studer's family decided to make a symbolic statement about the loved one whose life had been taken from them. Studer's sister, Jean Gorman(ph), had the idea.

Ms. JEAN GORMAN (Sister of Tom Studer): I had made some buttons when my babies were born. So we decided that that would be a good idea when my parents went over to the whole court thing, just to show that he was a part of our family and our circle is broken now.

TOTENBERG: Studer's father, mother and brother Jim showed up in court all wearing two-inch buttons with a picture of Tom in his military uniform. Defense lawyers, however, objected, contending that the buttons were aimed at prejudicing the jury. Tom's brother Jim describes what happened next.

Mr. JIM STUDER (Brother of Tom Studer): The judge asked to look at one of them. And he looked at it and said, you know, it's just a picture of the victim and I don't see that there's an issue here. So I'm going to allow them to wear the button.

TOTENBERG: The family continued to wear the buttons, but quickly had second thoughts. And after consulting the prosecutor, decided to take them off rather than jeopardize the trial. Musladin was convicted and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. The conviction was upheld by the state courts. A federal district judge also upheld the conviction, though he said that allowing the buttons was arguably not prudent.

But in 2005, a divided federal appeals court in California ruled that the buttons had impermissibly prejudiced the trial in a self-defense case by portraying Studer as the innocent party and Musladin as guilty. The author of that opinion was one of the last liberal lions on the bench, Judge Stephen Reinhardt. And few expect the increasingly conservative Supreme Court to uphold his opinions. After all, as the state of California observes in its brief, if Tom Studer were still alive, he could've actually attended the trial.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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