Relatives and friends of murder victims -- a group silenced in court for the past four years -- will once again be heard, thanks to a new Supreme Court ruling.
The court said yesterday that judges and juries can consider "victim-impact" evidence when weighing the death penalty for convicted murderers.
That decision, reversing one the court set in a Maryland case four years ago, will mean a return of emotional testimony from victims' relatives that will likely turn juries against defendants, said Jerome E. Deise Jr., a state public defender who coordinates appeals for inmates facing death sentences.
"I think jurors are going to be overwhelmed by the kinds of testimony we can expect when the family members of a victim of a tragedy are going to now have the forum in which to vent their frustrations, their anger and their sorrow," Deise said.
Such testimony from victims' relatives will distract jurors from the story defense lawyers like to tell -- of the abuse and hardship the defendant went through and which may have led to murder, Deise said.
"But we will continue to try to help the jury better understand how our clients can come to commit such terrible acts," he said.
On the other side, prosecutors say the court ruling is appropriate.
"In terms of overall fairness, how can anybody impose a sentence while being sheltered from learning of the extent of the harm caused?" said Richard Rosenblatt, an assistant attorney general who oversees appeals in death-penalty cases.
"There is more to the tragedy of crime than just the actual murder, rape or robbery, as horrible as that is," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "The long-term consequences of a crime can be just as devastating as the actual event -- perhaps even more terrible -- because those consequences never end."
Eleven men in Maryland are now under a death sentence, according to Rosenblatt. But no one has been executed in the state's gas chamber since 1961.
State prosecutors will be able to offer victim-impact testimony at sentencing quickly now, because the legislature never rescinded the state law allowing the testimony after the Supreme Court ruled it invalid, Rosenblatt said.
Will the testimony from victims' families result in more death penalties?
"With jurors knowing the full extent of the harm caused, you could say that it would work against defendants," Rosenblatt said. "These arbitrary blinders were taken off."
The Supreme Court, by a 6-3 margin, upheld the death sentence of Pervis Payne, who was convicted of murdering 28-year-old Charisse Christopher of Millington, Tenn., and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie Jo.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, said barring such evidence has shackled prosecutors unfairly.
"Victim-impact evidence is simply another form or method of informing the [jury] about the specific harm caused by the crime in question," he said. The rulings overturned by the court deprived "the state of the full moral force of its evidence," he said.
He said the justices, with reason, generally are reluctant to throw out past rulings.