What Do Enya, Celine Dion, and a Grisly Murder Trial Have in Common?

Celine Dion

Prosecutor used Celine Dion's and Enya's music to soften up jury.

Salazar v. Texas was a grisly murder case involving a victim and alleged dope dealer named Jonathon. Jonathon’s cohorts turned on him and killed him by beating him with baseball bats and strangling him with wire.

At the punishment phase of the trial, over the objection of defense counsel, the state played a professionally edited video montage of Jonathon’s life, complete with music by Enya and Celine Dion!

The defendant appealed on the ground that the videotape was prejudicial. Here’s how the appellate court described the videotape (paragraph breaks inserted):

This video is an extraordinarily moving tribute to Jonathon Bishop’s life. It consists of approximately 140 still photographs, arranged in a chronological montage. Music accompanies the entire seventeen-minute video and includes such selections as “Storms in Africa” and “River” by Enya, and concludes with Celine Dion singing, “My Heart Will Go On,” from the movie Titanic.

Almost half of the approximately 140 photographs depict the victim’s infancy and early childhood. The pictures show an angelic baby, surrounded by loving parents, grandparents, unidentified relatives, and other small children. Later photographs show Jonathon as a toddler, playing the piano, frolicking at the beach with other friends, happily riding on a carousel, laughing in a field of bluebonnets, and cuddling with a puppy.

The video also includes numerous annual school pictures showing Jonathon’s progression from a cheerful child to a equally cheerful young man. It catalogs his evident and early prowess as a young soccer player and eventually as a football player. There is a picture of him and his date, presumably going to their prom, and more candid shots of the victim and his teen-age buddies. The video includes many family reunion portraits showing Jonathon’s entire extended family.

Understandably, this professional and polished production portrays Jonathon in a very positive light and it is entirely appropriate for a memorial service. The music, too, is appropriately keyed to the various visuals, sometimes soft and soothing, then swelling to a crescendo chorus. In sum, it is a masterful portrait of a baby becoming a young man. It is also extraordinarily emotional.

The court held it was reversible error to admit the videtape into evidence on the ground that its relevance was outweighed by its prejudicial value, stating:

[The] prejudicial effect is enormous because the implicit suggestion is that the appellant murdered this angelic infant; he killed this laughing, light-hearted child; he snuffed out the life of the first-grade soccer player and of the young boy hugging his blond puppy dog.

Salazar v. State, 90 S.W.3d 330, 333–34, 337 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002). Thanks to Texas Senior Judge James Barlow.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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