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Md. high court weighs constitutionality of victim-impact video

A defense attorney told a skeptical Maryland high court Friday that a videotaped, set-to-music victim-impact statement designed to stir a sentencing judge’s emotions violated a convicted double-murderer’s federal constitutional rights to due process and be free from arbitrary and capricious punishment.

“A sentencing proceeding in a homicide case is not a memorial service for the victim,” Brian L. Zavin said on behalf of Curtis Maurice Lopez.

The musically scored video of the two victims’ lives conveyed no relevant information about their death’s impact on their family and friends but was “unfairly inflammatory” in its emotional appeal, added Zavin, an assistant Maryland public defender.

But Assistant Maryland Attorney General Mary Ann Ince countered “victims are entitled to present evidence.”

The video “identifies the victims,” Ince told the high court. “It lets the sentencer know who the victims were.”

Judge Sally Adkins, in apparent support for the state, wondered aloud whether the video was “any worse than the factual circumstances of the crime.”

Lopez, in his circuit court plea, did not contest the state’s evidence that he killed his estranged wife, Jane McQuain, in October 2011 by bludgeoning her with a 30-pound dumbbell and stabbing her with a knife as she slept in her Germantown home and then took her car and other belongings. That same morning, Lopez picked up McQuain’s 11-year-old son, William, up from a friend’s house, drove him into the woods and beat him to death with a baseball bat, according to the evidence presented before Lopez’s Alford plea.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Mary Beth McCormick sentenced Lopez to a double life-without-parole sentence after prosecutors showed her a six-minute video that featured about 115 photographs chronicling the lives of McQuain and William set to the sound of church bells, instrumental music and a soft-rock song. The video also had a title screen, “The Story of Jane and William,” and closing credits, according to court papers.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals in February upheld Lopez’s sentence, which also included a 30-year prison term for kidnapping and a concurrent 12-year term for robbery.

‘Come away impacted’

Pressing Lopez’s high-court appeal, Zavin argued that the video’s entreaty to the judge’s emotions rather than to her reason – particularly the musical interlude and church bells – deprived the convict of his constitutional Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and Eighth Amendment right to an individualized determination of sentence that would not be cruel and unusual.

The video was “simply to elicit emotion, not to convey information,” Zavin said. “I don’t think this shows impact on the victims’ family. The music is not conveying any impact on the victims’ family.”

To illustrate his point, Zavin urged the judges to think of their favorite movie and then imagine it without any musical score.

“The movie would not be the same without it,” he said.

But Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said “judges are trained not to be beguiled” by emotional pleas and rely only on evidence relevant to determining a convict’s appropriate punishment.

Zavin countered that “judges are human.”

“I don’t care if you’re a judge or a lawyer,” he said. “You come away impacted by that video.”

But Ince said “judges can put aside irrelevant materials” even if presented in video form.

“This (video) was not a eulogy” from a memorial service, she added. “This was a celebration of life.”

Adkins and Judge Clayton Greene Jr., however, questioned whether the music was necessary.

Ince responded that the music did not “inflame or prejudice” but was in keeping with “the ability of the victims to express themselves.”

“People these days are very facile with electronic media,” she said. “They should absolutely be able to do that.”

Russell Butler, executive director of Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Inc., told the high court the McQuains’ family and friends “wanted the court to see who their loved ones were” and the video was “their one opportunity” to do that.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Curtis Maurice Lopez v. State of Maryland, No. 15 September Term 2017.

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