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Victims’ rights

It’s not unusual in a death penalty case to hear a defense attorney list the litany of sorry factors that supposedly turned his convicted client into a killer. Childhood abuse or a dysfunctional family life are two typical favorites designed to tug at jurors’ heartstrings.

Why, then, should the victim’s family be prevented from reminding the jury about the emotional trauma and life-long pain the violent death of a loved one caused them?

In fact, they shouldn’t — and on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

The justices rejected appeals from two California inmates who were sentenced to lethal injection after jurors were allowed to see video montages of their victims’ lives.

In one case, Douglas Oliver Kelly was convicted of the 1993 stabbing death of 19-year-old Sara Weir. During the sentencing phase of the trial, Ms. Weir’s family members were allowed to show jurors a tape that included photos and video clips depicting the victim’s life. It was set to music.

In the other case, Samuel Zamudio was convicted of killing his two elderly next-door neighbors, Elmer and Gladys Benson. During the sentencing phase, prosecutors sought to show 118 photos portraying the couple’s lives, set to music and narration. The judge permitted the video, but nixed the music while allowing the daughter to describe the pictures.

Both men were eventually sentenced to death.

Defense attorneys argued the displays were prejudicial. But the California Supreme Court shot down that objection, holding in the Weir case that the videotape was “factual, relevant and not unduly emotional.”

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reconsider.


Defendants in capital cases are given great leeway to present the mitigating factors they wish jurors to consider when meting out punishment. Allowing victims’ families to showcase some of the aggravating circumstances doesn’t seem any more prejudicial.

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