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Court issues warning as it upholds death sentence

PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a man’s death sentence on
Thursday in the killing of a Phoenix police officer but cautioned that the case
nearly crossed a line when jurors were allowed to hear emotional evidence from
the victim’s family.

Edward James Rose was sentenced after pleading guilty to the fatal shooting of
Officer George Cortez Jr. as he began to handcuff Rose in a store where Rose had
tried to cash a forged check.

State Supreme Court justices rejected Rose’s argument that his rights were
violated when the trial judge decided to allow evidence about the impact of the
crime on Cortez’s family. The appeal argued the evidence was prejudicial and
wasn’t relevant to possible leniency in sentencing.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of such victim impact
evidence, and the Arizona court has ruled that it’s relevant and allowable.

In its ruling on Thursday, the Arizona high court upheld a state law and acourt
rule. However, justices expressed strong reservations about evidence allowed in
the case against Rose.

The evidence included prepared statements by Cortez’s widow and oldest son;
photographs of the family at the officer’s grave; a 35-second audio recording;
and a poem read by his mother.

The appeal also questioned the appearance of the officer’s two sons in court
wearing clothing that resembled police uniforms.

“Even the (prosecution) concedes that the widow’s statements were `admittedly
emotional,”’ Justice John Pelander wrote.

The extensive evidence was troubling even though jurors had been instructed
they must not be swayed by passion or “mere sympathy,” the ruling said.

Still, the evidence wasn’t prejudicial or overly inflammatory, the court said.

The ruling cautioned that trial judges must preserve victims’ rights but also
limit and restrict evidence that’s so prejudicial that it is unfair to the

“We caution prosecutors and victims not to venture too close to the line, lest
they risk a mistrial,” the ruling stated.

It wasn’t necessary to show the photos, the ruling said, because the jury “was
well aware, without the photographs, that the murder caused the two boys to
suffer a devastating loss of their father’s love, affection, and support for the
rest of their lives.”

The recording of a “last call” police radio broadcast for Cortez was of
questionable relevance but wasn’t inflammatory, the ruling said.

Rose had argued that the statements by the officer’s widow and oldest son
impermissibly amounted to calls for a death sentence but did not directly urge
that punishment.

The court said it did “not condone the type of vengeful language the widow

The ruling encouraged prosecutors and trial courts to prevent presenters from
addressing in any way a potential sentence by pressing for an “appropriate” or
“just” sentence or asking for “closure.”

Such references could lead to a mistrial, the ruling cautioned.


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