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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 defendant.

``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 used.''

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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