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THE NEW TERM

Flesh-and-blood law

Behind the Supreme Court's dry and complex rulings are stories of victims and victimizers

September 24, 2006|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick, author of "Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State," is senior fellow in criminal justice at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

In May 1994, Matthew Musladin drove to the home of his estranged wife, Pamela, to pick up their 3-year-old son for a weekend visit. They got into an argument outside, and when Musladin pushed her to the ground, her fiance, Tom Studer, bolted from the house to defend her. Musladin pulled a gun, fired twice at Studer and killed him. Musladin claimed self-defense -- saying he believed that Studer had a gun -- but he was convicted of murder.

As in Cunningham, the issue before the court is not the crime itself. Rather it is the fact that during Musladin's 14-day trial, the judge permitted three members of Studer's family to sit behind the prosecutors' table wearing buttons prominently displaying pictures of the victim.

A lower court did not think that this was sufficient reason to overturn Musladin's conviction. But the 9th Circuit ruled in 2005 that the wearing of buttons had raised the possibility of "inherent prejudice" to Musladin's right to a fair trial. It overturned his conviction.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that "the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done." Though the lawyers in the halls and meeting rooms of the Supreme Court this term will no doubt find themselves quickly caught up in the minutiae of the law, in the competing doctrines and arcane legal theories that underpin the vast American justice system, it is worth remembering that behind every case is a story, very often a tragedy, that shouldn't be forgotten.

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