Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Use of Video Upheld as Victim Impact Evidence in Death Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A videotaped television interview in which a woman told of her aspirations for a singing and acting career was properly introduced as evidence in the sentencing phase of the trial of the man convicted of killing her and five other women not long after the interview, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously upheld the death sentences imposed on Cleophus Prince Jr., whose arrest in 1991 eased the fears of many in the Clairemont and University City neighborhoods of San Diego.
Prince’s case has been mentioned in several articles on serial killers, in part because he is an African American convicted of preying upon young white women. Most serial killers are white, and most kill victims of the same race as themselves, the authors explained.
The former Navy machinist’s victims included three of his neighbors at the Buena Vista Garden apartment complex—Tiffany Schultz, Janene Weinhold, and Holly Tarr. Tarr, who lived in Michigan, was visiting her brother at his apartment. He later killed Elissa Keller in her Clairemont home, and Pamela Clark and her daughter Amber Clark in University City.
At his trial in 1993, jurors found Prince guilty of the six murders and of special circumstances of rape-murder and multiple murder. They also convicted him of five counts of burglary and one count of rape involving the murder victims, and of six other burglaries and nine attempted burglaries.
At the penalty phase, Prince’s attorney challenged the admission of the videotape of a 25-minute interview with Tarr, made at the studio of a community television station in her hometown of Okemos, Mich. not long before her death. The attorney argued that allowing jurors to view a tape “in which an attractive, articulate, and talented young performer with a stage background literally comes back from the dead to share her plans and dreams with the jury” was more prejudicial than probative.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Charles R. Hayes, after a lengthy hearing, excluded a portion of the tape which included other footage of Tarr, including scenes of her performing, but allowed jurors to view the interview. Other victim impact evidence included the testimony of Tarr’s parents and stepfather, and that of relatives of three other victims.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the high court, acknowledged the potential for undue prejudice when videotape presentations of victims are shown to a jury. In this case, however, the trial judge took care to avoid that, the chief justice concluded.
George distinguished cases in other states in which victim tapes were held inadmissible.
“Particularly if the presentation lasts beyond a few moments, or emphasizes the childhood of an adult victim, or is accompanied by stirring music, the medium itself may assist in creating an emotional impact upon the jury that goes beyond what the jury might experience by viewing still photographs of the victim or listening to the victim’s bereaved parents,” the chief justice wrote. But here, he explained, the presentation was no more emotional than the live testimony.
“The loss of such a talented and accomplished person is poignant even for a stranger to contemplate, but the straightforward, dry interview depicted on the videotaped recording was not of the nature to stir strong emotions that might overcome the restraints of reason,” George wrote.
The case is People v. Prince, 07 S.O.S. 2235.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company