Appeals court dismisses case about trial rights of victims' families

Couple wanted to set legal precedent for others

July 31, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The Court of Special Appeals disappointed victims' rights advocates yesterday by dismissing a case on grounds that the trial judge mistakenly used an outdated law and then failed to explain to judges how to apply the new law.

The new law would have bolstered the bid of Karla and Scott Alford of Crofton to watch the trial of Zenon Cantu Jr., who was charged with killing their baby. The law changed on Oct. 1, 1998, with their request coming four days later, after they had finished testifying in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Asking Circuit Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. to let the Alfords into the courtroom, Assistant State's Attorney Thomas J. Pryal used the language from the new law. Neither he nor defense attorney T. Joseph Touhey, who argued to keep the Alfords out of the courtroom, specifically told the judge the law had changed or corrected Heller when the judge referred to the outdated standards.

The Alfords were allowed to hear closing arguments and they heard Heller find Cantu not guilty in October.

The Alfords filed an appeal in November. Through the appeal, victims' advocates hoped to set a legal precedent for how judges balance defense and victims' interests in their courtrooms.

"There is nothing that can change that outcome. On behalf of other victims and based on the way we felt for being kept out of the courtroom, we're doing this," said Scott Alford in a November Sun article.

The new law, which victims' advocates fought for, says courts should presume that a crime victim or his representative can be in court anytime a defendant is there. It also sets conditions for making exceptions. The old law did not have that broad presumption and had a lower standard for barring victims from court.

"To the point that they agreed that the court applied the wrong law and that we were mainly correct, we like it. We wish the court would have gone further and given some direction to courts in the future," said Russell P. Butler, attorney for the Alfords, whose 17-month-old son was found dead in his crib.

"Judges should protect victims' rights, just like they protect defendants' rights," Butler said.

"It doesn't do what we hoped it would do -- provide some guidance," said Frank R. Weathersbee, state's attorney for Anne Arundel County.

The ruling was unreported, meaning the intermediate appeals panel did not intend to apply it statewide.

The judges gently chided Heller for using an outdated standard, but noted that he may have been unaware of the change because copies of the new state laws were sent out late. The law was passed in April 1998 and signed by the governor in May.

Heller was not available yesterday for comment.

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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