Sara Nokomis Weir (2014) by Brian L. Frye; video, color, sound, 20 minutes.
This video consists of the victim impact video introduced in the penalty phase of the trial of Douglas Oliver Kelly, accompanied by an audio recording of the California Supreme Court hearing oral argument as to the admissibility of the video.
In the summer of 1993, Sara Weir was 19 years old. She lived in Burbank, California and worked at Warner Brothers Studios. In her spare time, she went to the gym, where she met Douglas Oliver Kelly. Before long, Weir hired Kelly as her personal trainer, and they became friends.
Kelly lived with his girlfriend Michelle and her 10 year old son Eric in Michelle’s North Hollywood apartment. On August 30, Michelle found another woman’s glasses and underwear in her apartment. She locked Kelly out, but he kicked open the door, assaulted her, and prevented her from leaving.
The next day, Kelly allowed Michelle to leave the apartment, and she immediately called the police. Kelly was arrested and spent the night in prison. Michelle got a restraining order against Kelly and moved in with her sister. The super changed the lock on Michelle’s apartment, but Kelly climbed onto the balcony and broke in.
On Labor Day, September 6, Sara Weir returned home from vacation. The next morning, she called in sick to work, explaining that a friend had committed suicide.
Robert Coty managed a building across the street from Michelle’s apartment. Shortly after Labor Day, Coty saw Kelly in the apartment. Through a window, he saw Kelly circling a kneeling, naked woman.
Michelle occasionally visited her apartment to get clothing. Sometime after Labor Day, she noticed an unusual smell. When Michelle and Eric visited the apartment on September 15, Eric found Weir’s body under his bed. She was naked and wrapped in a blanket. A plastic bag covered her head and was taped around her neck. Eric’s baseball helmet was stuck on her head, over the bag. Kelly’s fingerprints were everywhere.
On November 24, Kelly was arrested in Laredo, Texas, while re-entering the United States from Mexico. He had two of Weir’s checks, with forged signatures. Later, Weir’s car was found in Mexico.
The State of California charged Kelly with first-degree murder, a capital crime. Death penalty trials have a guilt phase and a penalty phase. In the guilt phase, the jury decides whether to convict the defendant, and in the penalty phase, it decides whether to impose the death penalty. During the penalty phase, the defendant can introduce mitigating evidence that might cause the jury to impose a lesser sentence, and the prosecutor can introduce victim impact evidence of the effect of the crime on the victim’s family and community. The court must decide whether to present that evidence to the jury. Many courts allow defendants to present videos.
In the guilt phase, the jury convicted Kelly of first-degree murder. During the penalty phase, the prosecutor introduced a 20 minute video, which was narrated by Weir’s mother, and consisted of photos and home videos, accompanied by Enya. The court admitted the video, and the jury sentenced Kelly to death.
Kelly appealed his sentence to the California Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court should not have admitted the victim impact video.
The California Supreme Court affirmed Kelly’s sentence. It held that victim impact videos “must factually and realistically portray the victim’s life and character” and “must not be unduly emotional.” But it found that “most” of the video “was factual, relevant, and not unduly emotional.” While “the background music by Enya may have added an irrelevant factor,” the court found that “background music in videotapes is very common” and “the soft music here would not have had a significant impact on the jury.”
The United States Supreme Court denied review of Kelly’s sentence, over the dissent of Justices Breyer, Souter, and Stevens. Breyer found the video “poignant, tasteful, artistic, and, above all, moving,” but felt that its “purely emotional impact” could violate due process. Stevens found that the video presented a moving portrait of Weir, but “added nothing relevant to the jury’s deliberations and invited a verdict based on sentiment, rather than reasoned judgment.”
Kelly remains on death row.