Emotional Testimony Tests Limits In Sniper Trial


Is there no limit on the scope of testimony in the Washington, D.C., sniper cases? The Washington Post notes that in the ongoing trial of John Allen Muhammad in Virginia Beach, Va., jurors have heard the terror-stricken voices of witnesses captured on 911 calls. They have watched heartbroken family members telling sorrowful tales. They have seen gruesome photos of the victims.

The Post quotes legal experts as saying that some of the evidence would not be admissible in other trials. In this case, presiding Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. is exercising broad discretion, allowing prosecutors to argue that the shootings terrorized the public and Muhammad deserves the death penalty under Virginia’s anti-terrorism statute.

Emotionally charged evidence becomes inadmissible when it ceases to prove the prosecution’s case and becomes prejudicial to the defendant, experts say. Muhammad, 42, is charged with capital murder in the slaying of Dean H. Meyers outside a gas station on Oct. 9, 2002.

“It’s a matter of discretion to how much the judge will allow,” said George Peck, who prosecuted Colin Ferguson, who killed six people on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in December 1993. “But generally speaking, the character of the deceased is not admissible in a murder case.”

Prosecutors cannot control what their witnesses say once they are on the stand. If family members begin to show emotion and talk about a person’s character, prosecutors will rarely stop them, because it creates sympathy in jurors’ minds. Defense attorneys are reluctant to cut off grieving relatives, fearing that jurors will see them as cold-hearted.

As Muhammad’s case proceeds, the pending cases against his companion Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, are raising issues about whether juvenile should be subject to the death penalty.

Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50824-2003Nov1.html

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