Court Hears Arguments on 'Victim Buttons'

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a crime victim's family has the right to sit in court wearing buttons with pictures of the victim. The accused murderer's conviction was thrown out because the buttons may have had a prejudicial effect on the jury.

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on a case testing whether wearing buttons that commemorate the victim of a crime prejudices a defendant's right to a fair trial.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that having defendants wear prison clothing when they appear before a jury impermissibly prejudices the defendant right to a fair trial. The case before the court today asked whether spectators may wear buttons that support the prosecution.

The case involves a California murder case in which the defendant, Matthew Musladin, claimed he was acting in self-defense. His account was that his estranged wife, her boyfriend and brother were engaged in drug trafficking. And that when he went to pick up his three-year-old son, that they came after him with a machete, causing him to reach for a gun and fire, killing the boyfriend, who was later found to have drugs in his blood.

Musladin's estranged wife, Pamela, and her brother told a very different story, that Musladin had come to the house boiling for a fight and went after them with a gun, pursuing the boyfriend, Tom Studer, into the garage and killing him. At trial, the Studer family wore buttons that bore picture of the dead man, taken when he was in the military and wearing his uniform. The idea for the buttons came from Studer's sister, Jean Gorman.

Ms. JEAN GORMAN: I had made from buttons when my babies are 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: But on the steps of the Supreme Court today, Musladin's lawyer, David Fermino, contended that the buttons ran the risk of prejudicing the jury.

Mr. DAVID FERMINO (Musladin's lawyer): This is a case of self-defense and where you have a photograph of the victim as he was not in life, which was a methamphetamine addict and a drug user even on the day in question. And you have a photograph on the button which is him in a uniform when he wasn't any kind of uniformed officer. I think that sends a message.

TOTENBERG: In the end, Musladin was convicted and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. His conviction was upheld by the state court, but a Federal Appeal of court will return it, declaring that the buttons impermissibly prejudiced the jury. Today in the Supreme Court, the first order of business was whether a federal law written to limit federal court review of state convictions even allows federal courts to intervene in a case like this.

But the justices has quickly got to the question of buttons. California Deputy Attorney General Gregory Ott told the court that judges should determine whether buttons are permissible by looking at the totality of the circumstances in each case.

Justice Kennedy, "That doesn't help me. We'd just tell all judges in the country to assess all the circumstances. We say no more? What about banners?"

Answer, "I haven't seen a case involving banners."

Justice Kennedy, "I think I know why. It affects the atmosphere of the courtroom."

Justice Scalia, "We don't allow people to wear beanie hats, either."

Justice Brier, "As far as I think, it's pretty hard to draw lines on buttons. So the only way to guarantee fair trials is to ban them."

Answer, "I believe the rules should be the totality of the circumstances."

Justice Suter, "What if the button had said Hang Musladin?"

Answer, "That would be so outrageous that it would affect the fairness of the trial."

Justice Suter, "Why?"

Answer, "Because the message is urging the jury to convict him."

Justice Suter, "What's wrong with that? The prosecutor's gonna get up and urge the jury to convict him anyway."

Chief Justice Roberts, "How different is it from the victim's family sitting behind the prosecution everyday of the trial?"

"Very different," argued David Fermino, representing Matthew Musladin.

Justice Brier, "I'm concerned about buttons. I think they're probably a problem. But this is a case where everyone agrees your client pulled the trigger. The only question is whether it was in self defense."

Justice Kennedy, "If one of the family members were sobbing, it has much more impact than a button."

Justice Alito, "There may be relatives of the defendant in the courtroom and relatives of the victim. Isn't it apparent from their behavior which side they think should win?"

Answer, "I don't know what was in the jurors minds when they saw these buttons, but the point is, it could affect the outcome"

A decision on the button case is expected later this year.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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