In the newspaper business, a truism teaches that one picture is often worth a thousand words. In a case now pending in the Supreme Court on a petition for review, one picture may be worth a new trial for a man convicted of murder. Then again, maybe not.
The story goes back to an afternoon in May 1994, when Mathew Musladin came to the home of his estranged wife, Pamela, in San Jose, Calif. His purpose was to pick up their 3-year-old son under a visitation agreement. According to court records, they quarreled outside the house. He shoved her to the ground. Her brother Mike and her fiance, Tom Studer, raced from the house to help her. Musladin retrieved a handgun from his car. He shot at Studer, hitting him in the shoulder and knocking him down. Studer crawled to the garage. Musladin fired again. The bullet ricocheted off the floor and struck Studer in the head, killing him.
Musladin fled, but was soon captured and charged with murder. He pleaded self-defense -- Studer had a gun, her brother had a machete -- but after a 14-day trial a jury found him guilty. The sentence was 32 years to life in prison. California's state courts affirmed that sentence, but Musladin did better before a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Last October, Judge Stephen Reinhardt ordered him released unless the state promptly grants a retrial.
What led to Reinhardt's ruling? You will never guess.
Studer's mother, father, and Pamela's brother Mike came every day to the trial. They sat in the front row of the visitors' gallery, just behind the prosecution. Each of them wore a lapel button. The buttons, 2 to 4 inches in diameter, had no legend, but they bore a photograph of the victim. Defense counsel objected before the trial began, but the trial judge refused to order the buttons' removal: The judge saw "no possible prejudice to the defendant."
In the U.S. Circuit Court, Judge Reinhardt (joined by Judge Marsha Berzon) strongly disagreed: "Under clearly established Supreme Court law such a practice interferes with the right to a fair trial by an impartial jury free from outside influences." The buttons presented "an unacceptable risk of impermissible factors coming into play." They created an "inherent prejudice to the defendant's right to a fair trial."
Reinhardt dwelled especially upon the Supreme Court's 1976 opinion in the case of Harry Lee Williams. The case arose from a run-of-the-mill conviction for assault with intent to commit murder. Williams, an indigent, was unable to post bail. He thus appeared in prison garb for his jury trial. His court-appointed attorney mildly objected, but the trial continued, and eventually the issue reached the Supreme Court.