Mar 18, 2010

Memorial Videos in Death Penalty Cases

Memorial videos are a new form of victim impact "testimony" in death penalty cases.  A prosecutor may present a memorial video in the penalty phase of a death penalty trial, in an effort to convince a jury that a convicted murderer should be sentenced to death rather than to life imprisonment.

A typical memorial video portrays events in a murder victim's life.  It may begin with a photo of the victim as a baby or young child, and after a photo montage lasting about 15-20 minutes conclude with the victim's casket being lowered into the ground.

The ostensible purpose of a memorial video is to impress on jurors that underneath all of the legal formalities is a living being whose life the defendant took.  But if you think back to similar videos you may have cried through at weddings, anniversaries and other happy events, you'll realize that memorial videos can easily appeal to jurors' passions rather than their reason.  For this reason, judges have to carefully balance the probative value of a memorial video against the risk of unfair prejudice to the defendant.  For example, a judge might exclude a video of inordinate length, or one that unduly emphasizes the victim's demise and funeral.