Appealing to the Supreme Court

Appealing to the Supreme Court

On rare occasions, a case involving a crime victim raises significant legal issues that have not yet been addressed and resolved by an earlier judicial ruling. In these instances, victims and their supporters, as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, have turned to the U.S. Supreme Court to make wise and fair decisions that will serve as a precedent for future cases to follow.

The Supreme Court is the highest appellate body in the judicial system. It hears only those cases on appeal from federal and state courts that appear to raise important principles of constitutional law. Its nine justices are appointed by the president (who must secure the approval of the Senate) for life so that they can make decisions without fearing repercussions from powerful outside pressure groups. When a majority of Supreme Court justices (five or more) agree on a decision, that ruling sets a precedent that must be followed in all lower courts throughout the nation. These landmark decisions also guide the procedures followed by police departments, prosecutors, trial judges, corrections

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officials, and other agencies within the criminal justice system.

Over the past several decades, a number of deci- sions handed down by the Supreme Court have affected the rights and interests of crime victims (see O’Neill, 1984). Some of these far-reaching rul- ings are summarized in Box 7.4. In most of these landmark decisions, the Court rejected arguments raised by victims and their supporters.

Note that many of these decisions were decided by just one vote, indicating that a near majority of the justices holding differing political ideologies and priorities voiced strong dissenting opinions.


The jury system, pioneered hundreds of years ago in England, has been hailed as an inspiring example of participatory democracy because ordinary citizens— not government officials, scientific experts, or criminal justice professionals—decide whether an individual is guilty as charged.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants that they will be judged by a jury of their peers who live in the jurisdiction where the alleged offense took place. Exactly what that means (espe- cially the interpretation of the term peers) is a sub- ject of ongoing controversy and has led to many court decisions over the years. In order to choose the 12 people (plus alternates) who will listen to the testimony and evaluate the evidence before delib- erating and then rendering a verdict, a complicated set of procedures and steps that vary from state to state (and the federal government) must be fol- lowed in a sometimes protracted and costly process. In general, the adversarial system empowers the prosecutor as well as the defense attorney to exer- cise a certain number of challenges for cause (they must explain why) plus peremptory challenges (no reason needs to be given), in order to eliminate particular potential jurors. Supposedly both of these opponents are seeking thoughtful, reasonable, open-minded individuals who start out as impartial. In reality, the prosecution would prefer to launch

the trial with jurors leaning toward conviction while the defense would hope to seat individuals already skeptical of the government’s version of events who will ultimately thwart the achievement of a unanimous verdict. Therefore, picking those who will sit in judgment is a crucial stage in which each side tries to uncover the biases of pro- spective jurors in that day’s pool of citizens called for jury duty (the venire) by carefully questioning them (the process of voir dire).

From a victim-centered perspective, several issues and questions arise: First of all, do victims influence the outcomes of trials either by displaying emotions (that they are appropriately upset, in pro- portion to the suffering they endured) or by acting so restrained that they come across as less deserving of sympathy and vindication (see Rose, Nadler, and Clark, 2006)? Second, which kinds of jurors will be most likely to accept and trust the testimony of the victim, who is serving as a witness for the prosecu- tion, that the person on trial is truly the one who allegedly committed a harmful act? Third, are those jurors who have been on the receiving end of serious crimes themselves (or who have suffered because of what happened to loved ones) more likely to vote for conviction during jury delibera- tions than the others who have heard the same arguments advanced by the prosecution and chal- lenged by the defense? Finally, when jurors not only decide whether the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but also determine what the sentence should be—as in bifurcated death penalty trials—do they factor in the victim’s characteristics and status?

The decision making of the members of a jury that takes place behind closed doors precludes researchers from reconstructing who voted to con- vict or acquit, and why. So most studies either focus on simulated trials in front of mock juries, or they seek out statistical patterns running through the verdicts of many similar cases.

The decision to accept or reject a particular prospective juror is made on the basis of each coun- sel’s stereotypes, hunches, and accumulated wisdom from past experiences as a trial lawyer. But picking a jury has evolved from an “art” to a “science” with

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