Deep impact

Sara Weir was killed a few days after Labor Day in 1993. She was 19 years old. The exact day of her death is uncertain, because when a ten-year-old boy named Eric discovered WeirâÄôs nude body underneath his bed, it was too badly decomposed for examiners to determine an exact date of death. Douglas Oliver Kelly, an acquaintance of WeirâÄôs from a fitness center in Burbank, Calif., was convicted of her murder. Evidence at trial suggested that Kelly had stabbed Weir 29 times, probably with a pair of scissors. He then wrapped her body in a blanket and placed it under the bed of his former girlfriendâÄôs son, to be discovered days later. By all accounts, Kelly was a general loser; a serial rapist and repeat swindler, conning friends and acquaintances out of their money through empty promises and stories of wealthy parents. Seven different women testified at trial that Kelly had either stolen from them, raped them, or both. Kelly did not present any evidence to defend himself at any point during his trial. After Kelly was convicted, the court considered his sentence. The main focus of the penalty phase of the trial was a videotape Sara WeirâÄôs mother prepared about WeirâÄôs life. âÄúSaraâÄôs death did not occur in a vacuum,âÄù the California Supreme Court stated in upholding the use of the videotape to describe the effect that her death had on her family. The videotape, which was about 20 minutes long, mostly contained home videos and pictures of WeirâÄôs childhood, combined with narrations by her mother about her life. When used at sentencing, such a tactic is typically referred to as âÄúvictim impact evidence.âÄù According to my âÄúModern Criminal Procedure textbook,âÄù the goal of victim impact evidence is to âÄúprovide information about the financial, emotional and physical effects of the crime on the victim and the victimâÄôs family.âÄù In 1987, in a case called Booth v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court held that victim impact statements were an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment when used in capital cases. Booth involved the murder of an elderly Baltimore couple, and resulted in the death sentence of John Booth after a sentencing hearing that included the reading of a statement compiled from interviews with the family of the murdered couple. The family told of their fear, anger and even of a wedding ruined in the wake of the murders. âÄúOne can understand the grief and anger of the family caused by the brutal murders in this case,âÄù Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority. âÄúBut the formal presentation of this information by the State can serve no other purpose than to inflame the jury and divert it from deciding the case on the relevant evidence concerning the crime and the defendantâĦany decision to impose the death sentence must be, and appear to be, based on reason rather than caprice or emotion.âÄù Four years later, the Court reversed that decision in Payne v. Tennessee, a case which involved the stabbing murder of a 28-year-old woman and her 2-year-old daughter. The womanâÄôs 3-year old son, Nicholas Christopher, was also stabbed multiple times, but eventually survived. At the hearing, NicholasâÄôs grandmother testified as to the effect of his familyâÄôs deaths on the young boy. âÄúHe cries for his mom. He doesn’t seem to understand why she doesn’t come home. And he cries for his sister Lacie. He comes to me many times during the week and asks me, âÄòGrandmama, do you miss my Lacie?âÄôâÄù Victim impact statements are âÄúdesigned to show instead each victimâÄôs uniqueness as an individual human being,âÄù wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the CourtâÄôs opinion. âÄúVictim impact evidence is simply another form or method of informing the sentencing authority about the specific harm caused by the crime in question.âÄù In a concurring opinion Justice Sandra Day OâÄôConnor stated that âÄúIf, in a particular case, a witnessâÄô testimony or a prosecutorâÄôs remark so infects the sentencing proceeding as to render it fundamentally unfair, the defendant may seek appropriate relief.âÄù This was essentially the state of the law regarding victim impact statements when the Supreme Court decided not to consider KellyâÄôs case this term. Kelly claimed that the video was unfairly prejudicial and that his capital sentence should be thrown out. Some of the courtâÄôs justices feel that the issue of victim impact statements needs to be reassessed, and that the film at issue in the Kelly case is an opportunity to do so. Justice Stephen Breyer issued a dissent from the CourtâÄôs denial in which he called the video âÄúpoignant, tasteful, artistic, and, above all, moving,âÄù but said âÄúany decision to impose the death sentence must be, and appear to be, based on reason rather than caprice or emotion.âÄù Justice John Paul Stevens issued a statement saying âÄúThe videos added nothing relevant to the juryâÄôs deliberations and invited a verdict based on sentiment, rather than reasoned judgment.âÄù The court has made these videos available on their Web site, and I would encourage anyone still reading this column to check them out. I knew the videos were there, and I was expecting something cheesy. Instead, I saw picture and home video footage of a young girl surrounded by her family. When I read the courtâÄôs version of SaraâÄôs murder later, I could put a personâÄôs face with the name in the opinion, something that doesnâÄôt happen very often in law school. But does the poignant nature of this video somehow make KellyâÄôs crime worse? Should the decision regarding whether he lives or dies be based on how much Sara was loved? I donâÄôt have the answer to these questions. And, at least for now, neither does the Supreme Court. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]