Crime victims, families demand a voice Proposed amendment would give them a say in court

November 05, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

Ginni Wolf, the widow of state police Cpl. Ted Wolf, is one of a growing number of men and women traveling the state pushing for victims' rights to civic groups, church groups and just about anyone else who will listen.

Her message: she was victimized twice, first by two gunmen who killed her husband when he pulled them over for speeding, then by a criminal justice system that made her feel like so much excess baggage.

Her husband's killers "made me a widow," she says, "but the criminal justice system made me a victim."

These represent new tactics for the Maryland Coalition for a Constitutional Amendment, which for three years has testified, brought in experts and otherwise lobbied the Legislature by more traditional means for a victims' rights amendment to the state constitution.

In her home town recently, Mrs. Wolf told about 55 people at a recent Glen Burnie Improvement Association meeting that after her husband was slain in 1990, crime details that investigators wouldn't tell her appeared in news reports. Nobody would show her photos of the crime scene. She had to pay a lawyer to argue that she be allowed to stay in the Howard County courtroom for the trial of one of the men accused of murdering her husband on I-95 -- despite a 1989 law that says a victim and family should be barred only for good cause.

"Please learn from my experience. Fight for your rights now," she said.

Most of her listeners picked up literature, and about a dozen added their names to a list of people who want to stay abreast of the movement to amend the state constitution to include victims rights.

The take-it-to-the-people strategy evolved last spring out of frustration. The push for speaking engagements began last month. The coalition, with about three dozen members, will formally launch its constitutional amendment campaign Dec. 13. wants an amendment to give victims three rights:

* To be informed of when and where court proceedings will be held.

* To be present at court proceedings.

* To be heard at various proceedings, such as sentencings.

L Opponents say the organization is seeking vigilante justice.

But victims say they are trying to balance the scales of justice, which they see as leaning heavily toward the defendant. Many victims' rights laws have discretionary provisions and lack enforcement measures. But a constitutional amendment would guarantee, for example, that a victim who wants to tell the judge and convicted criminal the physical, emotional and financial impact of the misdeeds would be able to, because of the elevated status of any constitutional provision.

Victims say they feel left out, that prosecutors do not always give them enough consideration or fight for their rights in the face of defense attorneys who would rather that a jury not see weeping, grieving victims. Many victims don't know what victims' rights laws say.

For three years, the proposal has made headway in the Senate, pTC but never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. This year could be different: grass roots efforts tend to play well in an election year, and the committee is headed by a proponent of victims' rights legislation, said Roberta Roper, a co-chairman of the coalition and head of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation in Upper Marlboro. The coalition represents at least 250,000 people.

John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, who frowned on the constitutional amendment, is no longer the committee chairman, position that carries weight. At the helm now is Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, who has sponsored many successful victims' rights bills, and says he will sponsor this too.

If the defendant has the right to confront accusers, the injured parties should be able to observe the defendant, victims rights advocates say. If the defendant can have people attest to his good nature before sentencing, the injured parties should be able to state the results of the criminal's deed, says Ted Criswell of Crofton, whose wife, Gwyn Dixon Criswell, was slain in 1990. He speaks to community groups. And his son Bryan changed his college major to lead to a career in the victims' rights field and now addresses college groups on the subject.

"Society wasn't murdered. My wife was," Mr. Criswell says.

But opponents to a constitutional amendment say the judicial system is designed for two sides, not three and that the law views crime as an affront to society, not just to the victims of the crime. And the more influence victims' and their advocates are permitted to have at trial, opponents of the amendment say, the greater the opportunity to prejudice the defendants' rights to fair proceedings.

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