updated 10/11/2006 3:58:39 PM ET 2006-10-11T19:58:39

The Supreme Court on Wednesday debated the case of an accused murderer whose conviction was thrown out because the victim’s family wore buttons bearing a picture of their loved one to the trial.

The justices waded into issues of defendants’ rights, struggling with the question of whether the buttons visible to the jury in the case of Matthew Musladin denied him a fair trial or were a harmless expression of grief. The state of California is seeking to reinstate Musladin’s conviction.

In another case, the justices considered when a judge’s discretion to impose additional time behind bars violates a convict’s constitutional rights.

In the buttons case, some of the justices seemed uncertain about how to proceed.

There is “a pretty darn good argument” the buttons risked the defendant’s right to a fair trial, said Justice David Souter. At the same time, Souter asked, “what am I to make” of the fact that not a single court has ruled on a similar set of circumstances? Souter questioned where the constitutional line would be drawn.

What if the buttons said “Hang Musladin?” Souter asked.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the message of the buttons in the Musladin case did not point to the defendant as the killer. Scalia said the circumstances might be different if the victim’s family had worn the buttons to a sentencing phase of a trial where the defendant had already been convicted.

Accused says he shot in self-defense
Musladin said he acted in self-defense in the shooting death of Tom Studer, the fiancé of Musladin’s estranged wife. Studer was shot twice, the second time as he lay under his truck in an attempt to escape the gunfire.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer told justices in court papers that the appeals court ignored a federal law requiring federal courts to be highly deferential to state judgments in murder cases.

Musladin was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.

In the other case, the lawyer for a former California police officer told justices that the state’s sentencing law violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. John Cunningham, his attorney said, should have been sentenced to 12 years in prison after a jury convicted him of sexually abusing his son.

Instead, the trial judge tacked on four additional years in prison based on facts that were not considered by the jury, Peter Gold, Cunningham’s lawyer said.

In two major rulings since 2004, the Supreme Court has said that systems that allow judges alone to decide facts that lead to longer prison terms violate the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

California law provides for three possible sentences and prescribes the middle option unless a judge finds reason to increase or reduce prison time. In Cunningham’s case, the judge decided that the child’s vulnerability and the father’s abuse of trust justified the longest possible sentence.

Crossing from a state to a federal system
The sentence fits with the recent court rulings because it is in the range set out in the law, California Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Laurance said. In addition, California’s Supreme Court has interpreted the state law to conform with the U.S. high court rulings, Laurance said.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who was not on the court for the earlier rulings, picked up on that point in questioning Cunningham’s lawyer. “What troubles me about your case is that California’s system looks a lot like the federal system” as the Supreme Court modified it last year, Roberts said.

Justices also appeared concerned with the effect their decision would have on California’s large prison population and those in other states.

Thousands of sentences in California could be affected by the outcome. Nine other states, including Illinois and Texas, are urging justices to uphold California’s sentencing law.

The cases are Thomas L. Carey v. Mathew Musladin, 05-785, and Cunningham v. California, 05-6551.

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