By Joan Berry and District Attorney General Dave Clark
The law in Tennessee has recently changed in a way that insults the memory of murder victims. Not a single photo of a victim prior to their murder is allowed to be shown during their killer’s trial. This problem needs to be solved, and voters can help.
Sadly, the gruesome photos of a corpse are the only presence homicide victims are granted during a trial. The defendant is allowed to be present and to be “cleaned up” and “dressed up” for the jury; but no picture of the victim can be presented.
For decades, it was a common practice for prosecutors to introduce into evidence a reasonable likeness of the victim prior to their murder in addition to crime scene photos. However, due to recent high-court rulings, trial judges now do not allow the practice for fear of having a verdict overturned.
The result of this trend is murder trials in which the only “presence” allowed for the victim is the image of their body—or remaining portions of it—at the crime scene.
An image of the mortally damaged and broken form of a murder victim is not an acceptable substitution for that individual’s presence in the courtroom. It cannot effectively communicate that individual’s personhood to the judge and jury.
That is why Tennessee Voices for Victims, HOPE for Victims, and Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark have joined together with other victim advocates and members of the law enforcement community to support the Victim Life Photo Bill (House Bill 1324, Senate Bill 933) to seek a law guaranteeing that an appropriate photograph of a murder victim be admissible in Tennessee’s murder trials.
There is popular precedent for our request. In 1998, by a count of 680,000 to 85,000, residents of Tennessee overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that guaranteed victims the right to “be present at all proceedings where the defendant has the right to be present.”
Some may contend that we are seeking to inflame the sympathies of judges or juries. This is not the case. We want the Victims’ Bill of Rights to be upheld in our state’s courts by affording murder victims the same rights as victims of other crimes. We want murder victims to be granted the opportunity to be present in the courtroom, not as a corpse or piece of evidence, but as a person as shown in an appropriate photograph.
Progress is being made. Recent cases in other states, and select cases in Tennessee, have allowed appropriate likenesses of murder victims to be viewed by the judge and jury. This is a good start, but it is not enough. A right is not an exception to the rule; it is the rule. Those who are not able to speak for themselves should be the first, not the last, to be guaranteed their rights as people in Tennessee courts.
Following the murder of her daughter Johnia Berry in Knoxville in 2004, Joan Berry has been instrumental in advocating for DNA collection from arrestees to aid investigations and as an advocate for crime victims. Dave Clark is the district attorney general responsible for Anderson County.