Prosecutors get leeway on using photos of victims Appeals court permits picture use to sway juries

June 12, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court gave prosecutors greater latitude yesterday in using photos of crime victims to sway juries, a ruling hailed by victims' rights advocates.

The Court of Appeals ruled 4-3 that victims' photos need not carry "essential evidentiary value," but may be shown to jurors if the judge finds they are relevant and help a prosecutor's case.

The court said Frederick County Circuit Judge Herbert L. Rollins was right to allow jurors to see photos of an 11-year-old boy before they convicted Paul Broberg of killing him in an April 25, 1993, drunken driving accident.

Broberg, 29, was convicted Nov. 15, 1993, of homicide by motor vehicle and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed the conviction in 1994, saying jurors were unfairly swayed when they saw photos of Thomas Blank Jr. in his Little League uniform and in his sixth-grade class.

But the Court of Appeals yesterday ordered Broberg's conviction reinstated, ruling that it is up to the judge to determine whether such photos should be admitted.

"Although the photographs were prejudicial they were not unfairly prejudicial," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote.

Russell P. Butler, who filed a brief on behalf of the Stephanie Roper Foundation and other victims' rights groups, praised the ruling.

"The decision is telling trial judges that they need to ensure the utmost respect for the rights of the crime victims in criminal trials," Butler said.

Judge John S. Eldridge wrote in a dissenting opinion that the majority decision was based on an issue -- that the photos helped established the victim's identity -- never raised in the state's request for Court of Appeals review.

But the victim's father said yesterday that the courts seemed too concerned with technicalities and that he was glad to see Broberg's conviction reinstated.

"He caused a lot of pain and sorrow and grief to a lot of people," said Thomas E. Blank Sr., a quarry clerk from Buckeystown.

Broberg's lawyer said yesterday that his client is weighing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or a request to the Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision.

"The fact that the state felt it necessary to resort to repeatedly displaying these photos betrays a doubt on their part of their ability to win a conviction based on the relevant evidence," Kevin G. Hessler said.

Legal experts say prosecutors sometimes use photographs to make a homicide victim seem more human and win juror sympathies.

"It's nice to talk about the fact that someone was killed, but if you're the prosecutor and you can bring that person back to life so to speak, it has that much more of an effect on a jury," said Byron Warnken, who teaches criminal law at the University of Baltimore law school.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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