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Court Backs Victim-Impact Evidence in Capital Cases : Crime: California justices consider effect on family survivors in upholding death sentence for killer of girl.

November 26, 1991|PHILIP HAGER | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court on Monday held for the first time that evidence of the impact of a murder on a victim's family may be used to seek the death penalty against a convicted killer.

The justices, upholding the death sentence of the killer of a 12-year-old girl in Orange County in 1981, said that victim-impact evidence was a relevant element of the "circumstances of the crime" and may be placed before a jury under the state's capital punishment law.

"(The law) allows evidence and argument on the specific harm caused by the defendant, including the impact on the family of the victim," Justice Armand Arabian wrote for the court.

In a 6-1 ruling, the justices rejected an appeal by Thomas Francis Edwards, 48, an expert marksman who had been found guilty in the unprovoked fatal shooting of Vanessa Iberri and the wounding of her young friend as the two girls hiked toward a picnic site in Cleveland National Forest.

Lawyers for Edwards argued that the jury at his penalty trial was improperly shown photos of the two girls before their death and asked by the prosecutor to consider "what it's like . . . for Vanessa's family."

But the justices noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, reversing earlier rulings, had held last June that victim-impact evidence is permissible under the federal Constitution. Further, the state court said, while there may be some limits on "emotional evidence and argument," state statutes permit such evidence as an "aggravating factor" against the defendant.

"Whatever the photographs suggested of the preciousness of their lives was relevant to determining the proper punishment for taking one of those two lives and attempting to take the other," Arabian wrote.

In dissent, Justice Stanley Mosk said Edwards' sentence should be overturned on ground that a state law allowing the death penalty for murder while "lying in wait" is unconstitutional.

Mosk said also he believed that victim-impact evidence should be allowed only as it affects victims themselves, not their families. "The emotional impact of the crime on the victim's family is generally immaterial," he wrote.

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Dane R. Gillette said it appeared that under the ruling, prosecutors, in seeking the death penalty, now would have more freedom to cite the impact of the crime on the victim's survivors. "This is something the jury ought to be able to consider--the overall moral sense of the crime itself," Gillette said.

Attorneys for Edwards could not be reached.

The crime occurred when Vanessa Iberri and a 12-year-old companion, Kelly Cartier, were on a weekend camping trip with Vanessa's mother and stepfather. In early afternoon, the two girls left their campsite to have a picnic lunch at a site they had selected earlier in the morning.

According to authorities, Edwards, then employed as range officer at a Santa Ana gun club, drove past the girls once, then returned later and called out, "Hey, girls!" When they turned, Edwards fired a .22-caliber automatic pistol, striking Vanessa between the eyes and grazing Kelly in the head.

Edwards, who associates later said was upset because his wife had left him, fled and was arrested in Maryland. He was convicted in 1983 of murder while lying in wait and attempted murder. But two penalty trials ended in mistrials.

At a third penalty trial in 1986, the death sentence finally was pronounced.

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