Tuesday, December 12, 2006

9th Circuit Overturned Again

No big shock here.
The Supreme Court today unanimously upheld the conviction of a California man who had contended that he was denied a fair trial because people sitting in the courtroom were wearing pictures of the man he killed.

The justices ruled, in a case that addressed the relationship between federal and state courts as well as the conduct of courtroom spectators, that Mathew Musladin was not entitled to a new trial in the 1994 slaying of Tom Studer outside the San Jose home of Mr. Musladin’s estranged wife, Pamela.

Mr. Musladin admitted that he shot Mr. Studer to death, but he claimed that he did so in self-defense. After a two-week trial in which some of Mr. Studer’s relatives sat behind prosecutors while wearing small pictures of the victim, the jury found Mr. Musladin guilty. He was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.

In today’s ruling, the justices overturned a finding by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, which had held that the California state courts and a federal district court erred in rejecting Mr. Musladin’s bid for a new trial. Today’s ruling revolved around the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, by which Congress curbed the power of federal judges to grant habeas corpus petitions to review state court convictions.

Of course the decision also came with this from the most liberal conservative ever to come from NH.
And today’s decision may not be the last word on the issue of spectator conduct, to judge by the words of Justice , one of three justices who wrote separate opinions concurring in today’s judgment. From a defendant’s standpoint, Justice Souter wrote, it does not matter if the issue is official conduct — putting a defendant in shackles or prison garb, for instance — or personal behavior, like wearing pictures of the victim.

Either way, the trial judge has an affirmative obligation to control the courtroom and keep it free of improper influence,” Justice Souter wrote, adding that “one could not seriously deny that allowing spectators to wear visible buttons with the victim’s photo can raise a risk of improper considerations.”
It almost pushes me to the opinion that the court observers should be screened from the official trial participants. That way there would be no second guessing on any even slightly tenuous situations. The observers would still be witness to the proceedings but would not influence the jury directly.

Of course, having the whole Supreme Court overturn your ruling should really make one pause. Another reason why there should be some kind of review of judges with in the judiciary system.

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