Victim T-Shirts Won’t Lead to New Murder Trial

     MANHATTAN (CN) – Courts should stop audiences from disrupting murder trials by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with images of victims, but one judge’s failure to do so did not taint the conviction of a Brooklyn killer, New York highest court ruled.
     The trial in question stemmed from the murder of Leo Walton in 2008 at his Brooklyn apartment.
     As recounted in the 26-page decision Tuesday, Walton’s roommate, Mark Maldonado, had allowed the killer, Joel Nelson, to spend a night at their apartment.
     Nelson and Maldonado had been arrested together for shoplifting not long before, and Maldonado said Nelson had felt wronged by their disparate stints in jail.
     While Maldonado made bail, Nelson remained behind bars for several months.
     On the night Nelson was spending the night, Maldonado had gone into his bedroom with his girlfriend and locked the door, leaving Nelson and Walton alone in the living room.
     Maldonado heard gunshots 15 minutes later, after which Nelson kicked down his bedroom door and opened fire again.
     Though shot in the head, chest and legs, Maldonado survived. Walton had been shot three times in the back of the head and died.
     During Nelson’s trial, Walton’s family sat silently in the second row of the courtroom wearing T-shirts with his image and the phrase “Remembering Leo Walton.”
     Nelson’s attorney did not object to the T-shirts until the last day of trial, however, and the judge found the belated objection “disingenuous.”
     In addition to noting that the family did not draw attention to their outfits, the judge emphasized that one of the young women had worn the same shirt on at least three prior court dates.
     The defense raised the objection again unsuccessfully at sentencing after Nelson’s conviction. Again the judge noted that the family members had not drawn attention to their shirts, sat in the second row, and one even wore an outer garment over the shirt.
     Though the Appellate Division had affirmed, 2-1, the panel questioned why the trial court gave Nelson ammunition for his appeal.
     It had said the “better course would have been to immediately inform Walton’s family members that their conduct could potentially imperil the legitimacy of the trial, and give them an opportunity to voluntarily acquiesce to defense counsel’s request, thus obliviating the need for explicit direction from the trial court.”
     The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, affirmed by a unanimous vote Tuesday, but likewise said the outcome was “not optimal.”
     Writing for the majority, Judge Eugene Fahey said “there is no reasonable probability that the conduct by the spectators created an unacceptable risk to defendant’s right to a fair trial.” (Emphasis in original.)
     “The spectators’ silent display was not overwhelming and seemed to be in the nature of an expression of sympathy, not a play to the passion of the jury,” Fahey added. “Expressions of grief by a decedent’s family members and loved ones are to be expected – though not necessarily tolerated – during a homicide trial. Trial courts should continue to take measures to address the risks of such conduct and avoid even the suggestion that improper factors may have influenced the jury.”
     Three judges concurred in full, but another three concurred only in result..

%d bloggers like this: