SAN FRANCISCO - A convicted murderer could be released from prison after 11 years because of a ruling that found it was wrong for family members to wear badges with an image of the victim during his trial.
The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling following a review of the case of Mathew Musladin, who was convicted to life without parole in the 1994 murder of his estranged wife's fiance.
During the trial, three family members wore buttons bearing the image of victim Tom Studer within clear sight of the jury. The court ruled that such images had a prejudicial impact.
"Here, the direct link between the buttons, the spectators wearing the buttons, the defendant, and the crime that the defendant allegedly committed was clear and unmistakable, " Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the three-judge panel.
"A reasonable jurist would be compelled to conclude that the buttons worn by Studer's family members conveyed the message that the defendant was guilty. "
The decision means that county officials must decide whether to retry the case or allow Musladin go free, his lawyer David Fermino said.
The California attorney general's office could also request a 9th Circuit reconsideration of the case by an 11-judge panel; a spokesman said officials were considering their response.
One of the three judges in the Friday decision dissented.
"The buttons were three to four inches in diameter and, except for the deceased victim's picture, there was nothing else on them. The buttons conveyed no 'message,"' Judge David Thompson wrote.
"The addition of buttons worn by them showing only the victim's photograph would add little if anything to any possible risk of impermissibly prejudicing the jury. "