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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Lopez v. State, — A.3d —, No. 11, Sept. Term, 2017, 2018 WL 1531071 (Md. Mar. 29, 2018)

April 19, 2018

Defendant entered an Alford plea to two counts of first-degree murder, among other charges, for the murder of his wife and her child, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Defendant appealed from his sentence, arguing that the trial court erred in allowing the brother of the deceased adult victim to play a six-minute video containing photographs of the two victims set to background music in connection with sentencing proceedings, following live victim impact testimony from nine witnesses.  The court reviewed the legislative purpose of Maryland statutes governing written victim impact statements and victim impact testimony, and articulated three guiding principles that govern the admissibility of victim impact evidence: (1) “any victim impact evidence not strictly permitted by statute is within the sentencing judge’s discretion to consider”; (2) “videos can be relevant and probative at a sentencing hearing for purposes such as showing the personal characteristics and unique identity of the victim”; and (3) “there can and should be limitations on victim impact evidence, especially when that evidence is ‘prepared and reviewed’ before the sentencing hearing.”  The court noted with approval trial courts’ “broad discretion” to admit and consider victim impact evidence “in forms outside the bounds of victim impact statements and victim impact testimony” and held that “all prepared victim impact evidence submitted at sentencing, including victim impact videos, needs to meet at least one of the very broad content requirements” imposed by statute.  In the context of the video submitted in connection with this case, no error was found, as the video showed the identity of the victims, one of the statutory categories, and was neither irrelevant nor overly prejudicial.  The court also rejected defendant’s arguments that the trial court’s consideration of the victim impact evidence violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The court examined United States Supreme Court precedent and held, as a matter of first impression, “that there is no legal support for the proposition that the Eighth Amendment’s protection extends to claims that victim impact evidence presented at noncapital sentencing proceedings injected an arbitrary factor into the sentencing decision. We hold that a noncapital defendant’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment is not violated when victim impact evidence is introduced at sentencing.”  The court further concluded “that the victim impact video did not inflame the passions of the sentencing judge more so than the facts of the crime[,]” and “[a]s such, we hold that showing the video at the sentencing hearing did not violate [defendant’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause.”  Finding no violation of defendant’s constitutional or statutory rights, the judgment was affirmed.