Justices uphold victim videos

Savage is a Times staff writer.

Over the objection of three justices, the Supreme Court on Monday turned down appeals from two Los Angeles murderers who said it was unfair that videotapes of the victims' lives were played for jurors before they decided the killers should die.

Defense lawyers had argued that this "cinematic evidence . . . designed to play on the jury's emotions" should be excluded from a sentencing hearing in a capital case.

The action leaves intact a rule that allows the use of "victim impact evidence" in death penalty cases.

In 1991, the high court upheld this rule and said prosecutors may tell the jury about the victim, the victim's life and the effect of loss on family and friends. Its decision restored the use of this evidence, which had been ruled unconstitutional in an earlier decision.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who had dissented in 1991, said Monday that the court should revisit the issue and put limits on the use of this evidence because it could have a powerful emotional effect on jurors. He said jurors should focus on the killer and the crime, not the effect on the victim's family.

In the two L.A. cases, "the videos added nothing relevant to the jury's deliberations and invited a verdict based on sentiment, rather than reasoned judgment," Stevens wrote. Justices David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer agreed the court should take up the issue, but it takes four votes in the high court to grant an appeal.

In the first case, the justices rejected an appeal from Douglas Kelly, who was sentenced to death for the 1993 rape, robbery and murder of Sara Weir. She was found dead in a North Hollywood apartment after being stabbed 29 times. Kelly's blood and fingerprints were found at the scene. When he was arrested in Laredo, Texas, he was in possession of checks of hers.

Kelly had befriended several women at a health club in Burbank before Weir's murder, and some of them testified he had attacked them with scissors.

At his sentencing hearing, jurors watched a 20-minute videotape of Weir's life that had been prepared by her mother. It showed Weir as an infant and included scenes of her swimming, riding horses and singing "You Light Up My Life" with a school group. It was set to the music of artist Enya and closed with a photo of her grave.

Last year, the California Supreme Court said trial judges must be "very cautious" about allowing such videos in death sentencing hearings. It also said "irrelevant background music" should be avoided.

Nonetheless, the state judges rejected Kelly's appeal and said the 20-minute videotape did not cross the line. "The presentation was not unduly emotional," the state high court said. "The viewer knew Sara better after viewing the videotape than before, but the tape expressed no outrage over her death, just implied sadness. It contained no clarion call for vengeance."

The justices turned down a similar appeal from Samuel Zamudio, who was convicted in 1997 of murdering an elderly couple in South Gate.

Elmer and Gladys Benson were found stabbed to death. Zamudio, a neighbor who had done repair work for them, was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery. At Zamudio's sentencing hearing jurors watched a 14-minute video montage of the Bensons' lives prepared by their children.

A lawyer for the defendant said the video was "unduly inflammatory," but the state high court disagreed in April. It said the photos had "humanized" the victims to the jury and did not go so far as to play on emotions.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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