Oct. 11, 2006 -- The Supreme Court grappled today with the issue of whether a convicted murderer was deprived of a fair trial when family members in the court room wore buttons depicting a photo of the victim.
The high court has never before dealt with spectator conduct and some justices seemed troubled with the line between family members' grief and the right the accused has to a fair trial.
At issue is a case involving Mathew Musladin, who in 1994 shot and killed his estranged wife's fiancé, Tom Studer, during a family dispute. At Musladin's trial, family members wore buttons emblazoned with a picture of Studer. Before opening statements and away from the jury, Musladin objected to the buttons claiming in part that the buttons insinuated guilt when he had been acting in self- defense. The judge overruled the objection and Musladin was eventually convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison.
After Musladin lost his appeals in state courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned his conviction.
Attorneys for the State of California are hoping the Supreme Court will reverse the 9th Circuit. In briefs, California Attorney General's office argues that the courts should defer to the trial judge, who was the only judge to actually see the buttons, "the judge viewed the buttons, was present throughout the trial, and was in the best position to determine any potential prejudicial effect the buttons might have had."
The justices will consider whether the 9th Circuit misinterpreted a federal law meant to limit the role of federal judges when overturning state convictions.
Deputy Attorney General for California, Gregory Ott, told the justices that the buttons "added little to nothing" to the jury's perception of the case.
But Justice Breyer admitted he was "concerned with buttons" and he wondered if in general it wasn't "pretty hard to draw lines among buttons."
Justice Souter questioned whether the circumstances would be different if the buttons had sent a direct message such as "Hang Musladin." But Justice Scalia said that buttons worn by grieving family members did not necessarily signal guilt. "I don't think the buttons in this case say hang so-and-so or convict so-and-so. They just say we have been deprived of a loved one."
David Fermino, an attorney for Musladin argued that the buttons were "not acceptable" and that "the wearing of the buttons branded" his client as guilty.
Outside of court, Musladin's mother, Betty Musladin, said that she had seen the buttons at trial and objected to them. "If I were sitting on the jury," she said, "I would have been influenced."