Murder conviction restored

Supreme Court rules family's photos did not violate killer's rights

December 12, 2006|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday and restored a California murderer's conviction, saying his rights were not violated when the victim's family wore a small photo of him during the trial.

It was the high court's second reversal of the San Francisco-based appeals court in a month.

This time, the nine justices said the court went too far when it overturned Mathew Musladin's conviction for killing Tom Studer in San Jose in 1994.

The appellate decision had drawn outrage from victims rights advocates. They said families of victims should not be penalized for displays of grief in the courtroom. The high court's opinion, however, did not set new rules on what spectators may say or do during a trial. In a short opinion, the justices said they had overruled the appeals court because it had overstepped its authority.

Ten years ago, Congress limited the power of federal judges, saying they could not create new constitutional rights when reviewing state convictions. Only the Supreme Court could set a "clearly established" right.

In yesterday's opinion, the justices said they had never found a right for defendants to be protected from "spectator conduct" during a trial.

Kent Scheidegger, a lawyer for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, called the 9th Circuit's ruling "a prime example of exactly the kind of interference with state courts that Congress intended to prohibit."

Vikram Amar, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said it was notable that even the court's liberal justices rejected the 9th Circuit's decision. "This was an easy case for the Supreme Court," he said.

Yesterday's decision was greeted with relief by a brother of the murder victim.

"Our family is pretty excited and happy with how this turned out," said Jim Studer, an assistant school principal in Reno, Nev. "It was important this was a unanimous decision."

Last month, in their first decision of the new term, the justices overturned the 9th Circuit and restored a death sentence for a Central Valley man who had beaten and killed a young woman in 1982.

Both reversed opinions were written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles.

There was no dispute that Musladin shot and killed Studer in the driveway of his estranged wife's home on May 13, 1994. When Musladin and his wife, Pamela, quarreled, he threw her to the ground.

Studer, who was her fiance, and her brother came running.

Musladin pulled out a .45-caliber gun and began shooting. At his trial, Musladin said he had acted in self-defense.

The jurors found him guilty of first-degree murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

Last year, the 9th Circuit overturned Musladin's conviction on a 2-1 vote on the grounds that Studer's parents and younger brother had attended the trial wearing small, button-size photos of him in his Navy uniform. Reinhardt, writing for the appeals court, said these photos "conveyed the message the defendant was guilty" and violated his right to a fair trial.

The state judge who had presided at the trial had allowed Studer's family to wear the photos, saying he saw "no possible prejudice to the defendant."

A California appeals court agreed. Its judges said photos, ribbons or badges in the courtroom should be discouraged, but the "simple photograph of Tom Studer was unlikely to have been taken as a sign of anything other than the normal grief occasioned by the loss of a family member."

A federal district judge also rejected Musladin's claim of an unfair trial. But the 9th Circuit ruled that Musladin was entitled to a new trial or to be set free.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion, cited a 1996 law that said federal judges can upset convictions only when state courts have ignored a violation of "clearly established law" as set by the high court.

The court's only decisions in courtroom conduct dealt with "government-sponsored practices." In 1976, for example, the court said requiring the defendant to wear prison clothes at his trial is "inherently prejudicial."

By contrast, the Musladin case involves "spectator conduct," Thomas said.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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