Utah victim’s impact statement was not prejudicial, court says

A vivid and emotional victim’s impact statement was not prejudicial to a burglar who was given the death penalty, according to the Supreme Court of Utah. The man was sentenced to the death penalty for his role in a pair of home invasions that occurred in September of 2004 with two accomplices. The three men first robbed a 72-year-old woman’s home and then went and robbed an 87-year-old woman’s home. The first woman died during the course of her home invasion.

A jury eventually convicted the Utah man of aggravated murder of the first woman and the aggravated burglary of the second woman’s home. Regarding the aggravated murder conviction, the jury specifically found:

  1. That the murder was committed in the course of an aggravated burglary and an aggravated robbery
  2. The murder was committed in the course of an attempt to commit forcible sexual abuse
  3. The murder was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, cruel, or exceptionally depraved manner

During the penalty phase of the case the prosecution brought forth evidence that the man had a history of burglaries and home invasions. The prosecution also allowed the woman’s granddaughter to give a victim impact statement regarding the homicide and the fact that she had to personally clean up the woman’s house after the murder.

The Utah Supreme Court decided that this victim’s impact statement was not prejudicial and declined to grant the defendant’s appeal on that basis.

“We conclude that this testimony was not prejudicial because it was moderate in tone, provided only a description of the loss that the granddaughter felt as a result of [the victim’s] death, and did not convey an opinion of [the defendant’s] character or the appropriate sentence,” the court wrote. “Although the granddaughter’s statements provided vivid images of her grief, such descriptive accountings are not necessarily prejudicial. Further, the statements were not angry in tone and made no effort to pressure the jury to impose the death penalty.”

The court went on to note that there was no evidence that the defendant would have received a more favorable sentence but-for the victim’s impact statement.

This case illustrates an important part of any sentencing appeal: a person typically has to show prosecutorial misconduct or prove that an error at trial would have changed the outcome of his or her sentence.

Source: State v. Maestas, 2012 WL 3176383, July 27, 2012

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