Judges disagree on photos in court
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001
TAMPA -- She had driven all night, but Sharron Hawkins finally made it to the Hillsborough County Courthouse to see her sister's killer get sentenced.
She sat before Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa Jr. and held in her lap a picture frame with photographs of her 19-year-old murdered sister, Vickey Renee Newton. On her jacket, she wore a button with her picture.
Though she had driven 16 hours from Texas, the judge did not let her speak. In a firm voice, he called the lawyers to the bench.
"This is a public forum that is not an avenue for demonstration," Espinosa said sternly. "And I don't want to see any demonstration of any documents or any pictures or anything -- because what I have to do is make my ruling on the law and on what would be an appropriate sentence."
Hawkins crept out of the courtroom and collapsed into a waiting room chair.
"He was angry," she said. "I don't understand why. It doesn't make any sense. I guess when I come back, I'll come back pictureless."
The moment last month in Espinosa's courtroom raised a novel question: Had Hawkins done anything wrong?
Florida gives victims the right to read the court a statement at sentencing, but it doesn't say whether a statement can be accompanied by a photo. Some judges allow it; some don't. Nothing prohibits a judge from doing so, but nothing requires them to, either.
With a gap in the law, the question has been left unanswered: Can words alone convey a murder victim's loss?
Victim advocates say no, noting that images, such as yellow ribbons worn for hostages or armbands used to protest the Vietnam War, can become powerful symbols.
"How do we show the court the impact the defendant has had? How do you put that into words?" said Gail LeLand, president of the National Coalition of Homicide Survivors. "There are not enough words in the English language to express that. So they have to be able to show who this person was."
In cases other than homicides, victims can testify in court. That way, LeLand said, "The jury could see the victim, the jury could hear from the victim, the jury could learn from the victim the pain and the trauma the defendant is accused of."
With another unexpected change in the case, Hawkins feared that her sister's killer would go free. She drove 1,200 miles last month to attend the hearing and brought with her a picture frame, which included photos of Newton at different stages in her life.
In one frame, she was a smiling third-grader; in another, she was a grown 19-year-old. At the top of the frame was an image of Newton's gravestone, which read, "World's Greatest Sister."
The photos carried a particular significance to Hawkins, considering the way her sister died.
Her nude body was found in the parking lot at the Floriland Mall on a summer day in 1983. For 15 years, no one knew the identity of the body. The only picture available was an autopsy photo. In a composite description, Tampa police estimated the woman was between 15 and 23, with hazel eyes and shoulder-length, light-brown hair.
Hawkins discovered her sister's fate by chance in 1999 after looking on her home computer at the Missing Children Help Center Web site, where her sister's autopsy photo had been posted. She also found that the killer, Vincent R. Quevedo, had been sentenced to seven years of probation after pleading guilty to manslaughter in 1984.
She thinks he would have been sentenced to prison if the judge and prosecutors had been able to put a name with the victim. "But because she didn't have a name, she was like an old dead dog: Throw a blanket over her and bury her," Hawkins said. Last month, Hawkins got a second chance to make sure the judge would see the girl that Quevedo had killed. Quevedo had violated his probation, and Espinosa was set to sentence him for that.
In Espinosa's court, Hawkins sat silently beside the prosecutorwith her picture frame and button. The judge sounded upset about Hawkins' display. He delayed sentencing a week so lawyers could resolve a legal dispute, but would not let Hawkins speak, even though a prosecutor told him she had traveled from Texas.
Espinosa would not discuss the hearing for this article because the case remains in his division.
Lawyers, however, defended Espinosa, saying judges must control the courtroom to ensure order and protect a defendant's right to a fair trial.
Lawyer Stephen Crawford said a federal judge once ordered him to remove a tie that said "Not guilty."
"This is not Montel Williams. This is not Jerry Springer. This is a court of law. There are certain things that go too far," Crawford said.
Even so, other judges say victims should be allowed to show photos, as long as they are not disruptive and a jury is not present.
"The victim has a right to be heard from -- there is no question about that," Pasco-Pinellas Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer said. "A judge can't say, 'I don't want to hear from you.' "
Ivana DiNova, founder of the Missing Children Help Center, said she encouraged Hawkins to continue to wear her sister's picture in court despite Espinosa's order.
"I would encourage every family to never let anyone forget that something horrible has happened to their loved ones," DiNova said. "I would bring her in 50 more times to do that. I wish we had 50 more people who would walk in with pictures. Because Vickey (Newton) can't do that. Vickey is in a grave."
A week later, without any photos in the courtroom, Espinosa sentenced Quevedo to 15 years in prison. Hawkins, back in Texas, agreed with the sentence.
In the end, Quevedo's attorney, Charles Traina, said the photos played no role.
"I am sure that did not influence him," he said.
-- Times Staff Writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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