A decade ago, as the Inquirer's Burlco court reporter, I routinely attended murder sentencings where victims' families gave emotional statements in court.
But this one was radically different.
Marie Hess, who shot her husband and high school sweetheart in the back of the head as he slept, was about to be sentenced to 30 years in state prison. Audio visual equipment was wheeled into a packed Mount Holly courtroom. Jimmy Hess was a cop and his family members and fellow officers were all there.
As a 17-minute tape depicting Jimmy's life began to play, Marie Hess gasped. It showed a montage of pictures of him growing up, graduating, serving on the police force, going fishing, and then being buried. She sobbed uncontrollably. She frantically turned to her lawyer to see if he could do anything to stop it from going on and on.
There was no hint of her claims that he had beaten her over the years and had threatened to kill her if she stepped out of line.
When it was her turn to speak, she simply said she was sorry and prayed for forgiveness. Her plea bargain shaved four years off the sentence she could have gotten if she had gone to trial and called for her to keep quiet about the abuse. Her lawyer was also barred from asking for leniency under the terms of the plea bargain.
He said he had received a copy of the videotape to review before the court hearing, as had the judge. He didn't object because the plea bargain "tied his hands," he said. He said he wasn't sure that his client had seen it in advance.
It certainly didn't appear that way.
Last month, the NJ Supreme Court said the terms of the plea bargain were unfair. And, it said the video had the potential to arouse emotions and prejudice the judge. The court overturned the sentence.
The prosecutor says he will try her for murder.
Meanwhile, a debate rages across the country over whether there should be limits to these videos. Check out what other courts and legal scholars think.