TWO OF THE criminal cases decided by the Supreme Court this spring were appeals filed by persons convicted of violent assaults. In the first, Morris v. Slappy, a man had been convicted of multiple crimes including rape, sodomy, robbery and burglary, all concerning the same victim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had reversed the conviction on the grounds that the defendant had not established a "meaningful relationship" with his trial attorney, a theory rejected by a majority of the Supreme Court in April. The second case was that of Kelvin Hasting, convicted of multiple acts of kidnapping, rape and sodomy. His conviction had been reversed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals because of a comment made by the prosecutor in his summation to the jury. The Supreme Court reversed.
In both cases the high court refused to overturn jury convictions based on overwhelming evidence because of allegations of procedural error. But what is new about these opinions is an expression of concern for the victims in both cases. The courts, of course, must protect the rights of those charged with crime and must ensure due process and a fair trial. But, Chief Justice Burger writes, in making judgments on whether to sustain jury verdicts or to overturn them because of minor procedural errors, lower courts should be mindful of the burdens which new trials impose on victims.
Here is the chief justice's comment in the Slappy case: "Of course, inconvenience and embarrassment to witnesses cannot justify failing to enforce constitutional rights of an accused: when prejudicial error is made that clearly impairs a defendant's constitutional rights, the burden of a new trial must be borne by the prosecution, the courts and the witnesses; the Constitution permits nothing less. But in the administration of criminal justice, courts may not ignore the concerns of victims. Apart from all other factors, such a course would hardly encourage victims to report violations to the proper authorities; this is especially so when the crime is one calling for public testimony about a humiliating experience such as was involved here. Precisely what weight should be given to the ordeal of reliving such an experience for the third time need not be decided now; but that factor is not to be ignored by the courts."
This statement of policy was not crucial to either decision and may be of greater public interest for that reason. Certainly, both opinions should be welcomed by victims' rights groups, which now can be sure that their advocacy has been persuasive at the highest levels of the judiciary.