The Important Role of Defense Counsel

This appeal was an appeal out of Allegheny County.  The issue in this case revolved around disparaging remarks made against defense counsel in a victim’s letter, which was sent to the sentencing judge for purposes of a resentencing hearing.  The specific remark that was at issue was this:

Furthermore, [defense counsel] is lining his pockets with taxpayer dollars defending a confessed criminal.

The letter had been written by the wife of the victim who had died after King had hit him with his car and sped away from the scene.  (Interestingly, the victim’s letter also was not to kind to the judge.  She wrote: “I have been told that you sentenced King illegally—considering your knowledge and expertise, this offends my intelligence.”)

Defense counsel objected to this letter as improper victim-impact testimony and, on appeal, argued that the trial judge erred and/or abused his discretion by considering this letter.

Ultimately, the Superior Court disagreed.  The Superior Court began by noting that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “has found that certain victim impact evidence was admissible even when such evidence was not explicitly within the four corners of the victim impact statement statute.”  The Superior Court went on:

The information and evidence presented within a victim impact statement need not be so restricted to fit squarely within the “physical, psychological, and economic” impacts of the crime.  These statements are meant to show the way the ripple effects of crimes impact both individual lives, and the community as a whole.  To appreciate fully the gravity of a crime, human elements must be considered.  [The wife’s] letter does just this . . . .

For the foregoing reasons, this court cannot agree with [King] that the content of victim impact is limited to only the most carefully chosen words that neatly describe the impact of the crime on the family member testifying. . . . Even if victim impact testimony strays out of the expressed bounds of the statute, so long as it fulfills the purpose of victim impact evidence, (i.e. if it details the victim’s uniqueness or shows the impact of the person’s loss on society), and the presiding judge deems it relevant, then it falls within the purview of [the victim rights statute].

The Superior Court went on further to note that it could not agree to craft a rule that the inclusion of any disparaging remarks against defense counsel in a victim impact statement is a per se violation of law.  While the Superior Court agreed that attacks on counsel have no place in a sentencing hearing, and the trial judge has a role in curtailing such comments, it would not go so far to say that such comments automatically render a sentencing hearing improper.  The Superior Court, however, did go out of its way to provide a civics lesson in its opinion on the important role that defense attorneys play in our justice system.  That’s what makes this case interesting.  Consider what the Superior Court said at length:

When the opportunity arises, the trial judge may want to educate the public on the important role of defense counsel in a criminal case, and inform them that the Sixth Amendment affords the right to counsel to all persons, regardless of the type of crime or the evidence against them. The judge can remind those in the courtroom that defense lawyers are doing their job to uphold the Constitution and fulfill their oath as officers of the court.

A trial judge may even instruct the victims and family members, before they begin to testify, about the purpose of a victim impact statement and inform them that they may present evidence for the purpose of conveying how the crime has impacted the victim, their family, and society, and that, while they are free to speak about the defendant, any disparaging remarks about the defense lawyer are out-of-bounds and will not be tolerated. A criminal defendant’s right to a counsel is one of the bedrocks of our Constitution, and the court plays an important role in protecting that right.

We recognize that court proceedings can be exhausting both physically and emotionally on the victim and the family. However, these hardships are not attributable to defense counsel.

We are also mindful of the difficult role of defense attorneys who must defend their clients vigorously in adversary proceedings. These clients maybe facing very serious penalties and are often despised by victims, their families and the general public.

We note that failure to contain disparaging remarks about defense counsel could implicate their safety. During oral argument, defense counsel emphasized that victim impact statements could potentially inflame the spectating public. While the defendant is frequently escorted safely out of the courtroom under the protection of law enforcement, the defense attorney has no such security, and must leave the courtroom, using the same hallways as the victims and their families. If disparaging or threatening remarks about counsel are permitted during emotionally charged sentencing hearings, it could enrage those in attendance and put defense attorneys in harm’s way. The court has an interest in keeping attorney’s safe in the course of performing their duty as advocates. Thus, although we find the letter in this case was admissible, we do not condone the negative comment about defense counsel, and we encourage trial courts to play an active role in eliminating such remarks.