Tuesday, December 12, 2006
U.S. Supreme Court Rules:
Wearing of Buttons in Court Did Not Deny Murderer Fair Trial
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling granting a new trial to a convicted murderer, who claimed he was denied a fair trial because relatives of the victim appeared in court wearing buttons with the deceased’s picture on them, was overturned yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices unanimously agreed with Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the seven judges who dissented when the Ninth Circuit denied en banc review of the case in October of last year, that the panel decision violated the statutory provision limiting the power of federal courts to overturn state convictions.
In granting habeas corpus relief to Matthew Musladin, now serving a 32-year-to-life sentence for first degree murder, the Ninth Circuit cited decisions holding that practices that create a prejudicial courtroom environment, such as forcing the defendant to wear prison garb or seating an excessive number of unformed officers behind the defendant, violate due process.
But Justice Clarence Thomas, writing yesterday for the high court, said those cases dealt only with government-created impediments to a fair trial.
“In contrast to state-sponsored courtroom practices, the effect on a defendant’s fair-trial rights of the spectator conduct to which Musladin objects is an open question in our jurisprudence,” Thomas wrote.
No Prior Holdings
Because the high court has never held that spectator misconduct alone can deprive the defendant of the fair trial mandated by the Constitution, other than in cases “in which the proceedings were a sham or mob dominated,” Musladin’s petition should have been denied under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the justice concluded.
AEDPA limits federal habeas corpus relief from state convictions to cases in which the final state court ruling is contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established law as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas cited Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, in which the court explained that “clearly established law” means “the holdings, as opposed to the dicta” of the Supreme Court as of the date of the state court ruling under review.
Musladin was convicted in the 1994 killing of Tom Studer, who was engaged to marry Musladin’s estranged wife.
Pamela Musladin testified that she and her husband, who had come to her home to pick up their son for a weekend visit, got into an argument and that Studer and her brother, with whom she shared the house, came out to assist her after she was pushed to the ground. Musladin, she said, grabbed a gun and fired two shots, killing Studer.
The defendant admitted pushing his wife to the ground. But he contended that Studer and the defendant’s brother were armed and that he shot in their direction out of fear for his own life.
Experts agreed that Studer was killed by a ricocheting bullet. Musladin claimed both self-defense and imperfect self-defense.
Members of Studer’s family, who sat in the front row of the gallery at the Santa Clara Superior Court trial, wore buttons on their shirts with the decedent’s picture on them during at least some of the 14 days of trial. The trial judge overruled defense objections to the wearing of the buttons.
Convicted of first degree murder, Musladin lost his state appeals, the Court of Appeal holding that while the wearing of photographs depicting a victim “should be discouraged,” it did not brand the defendant as guilty in the context of the particular case.
AEDPA requires federal courts to defer to that holding, Thomas wrote. Noting that state courts have divided on the effect of spectator conduct, including the wearing of buttons, Thomas did not express an opinion on the issue.
Thomas was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito, while Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter concurred separately.
Stevens said he agreed with the result, but argued that AEDPA allows consideration of Supreme Court dicta in assessing what constitutes “clearly established law.”
Kennedy said that AEDPA would allow habeas corpus relief if the wearing of buttons created “an atmosphere of coercion or intimidation” to a “severe extent,” citing the infamous Sam Sheppard and Billy Sol Estes cases.
Souter argued that the wearing of buttons creates a risk of fundamental unfairness, but that the risk in this case did not rise to the “unacceptable” level, citing a number of decisions that have upheld the wearing of buttons by spectators, along with a possible First Amendment interest.
The case is Carey v. Musladin, 05-785.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company