Victims' rights proposal sweeps the legislature

February 19, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

A proposed amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing rights for crime victims rolled through the legislature like a train yesterday, with most members voting to approve the popular measure.

The Senate passed the amendment 42 to 0 without debate. The House of Delegates also approved it overwhelmingly, 126 to 11.

The amendment would grant victims the right to be treated with "dignity, respect and sensitivity" by the court system. They would also have the right to be notified of relevant criminal justice proceedings, to attend them and to be heard.

Identical bills will switch houses next month for final approval, which is considered all but certain. The amendment would then go to a public referendum in November.

The proposal has been enormously popular among lawmakers in this election year. However, it drew criticism from several delegates yesterday, who called it an empty, politically motivated act that might create chaos in the courts or clutter up the state constitution.

"The idea that we're going to amend the constitution as a feel-good measure is repugnant to me," said Del. Leon G. Billings, D-Montgomery, who voted against the amendment. "One hundred and twenty six members of the House of Delegates felt it was easier to vote for this than to explain why they didn't."

During a spirited debate on the House floor, though, supporters argued the amendment was harmless and would send a strong, supportive message to Maryland's crime victims.

"We live in a world of images," said Del. Charles R. Avara, a Baltimore Democrat. "Even placebos have a place."

After the House vote, a group of victims' rights advocates who spent the past six years working for the amendment burst into applause. Roberta Roper, whose daughter Stephanie Ann was kidnapped and murdered in 1982, was among them.

Mrs. Roper became a victims' rights advocate after she was excluded from the trial of her daughter's assailants. Maryland law required that she remain outside the courtroom during the trial because she was listed as a witness in the case to identify her daughter's car.

Mrs. Roper has said the court excluded her from the most important event of her life.

After yesterday's vote, Mrs. Roper predicted victory at the polls this fall.

"For the very first time, victims have a voice," she said. "We're absolutely certain that the people of Maryland will overwhelmingly approve it."

If a majority supports the amendment in November, it will become law, and Maryland will be the 15th state to offer constitutional guarantees for crime victims.

But what exactly would crime victims get?

House members debated that issue over the past week but failed to reach a consensus.

Proponents say the amendment would put victims' rights on a par with those of the accused.

For instance, victims would have a constitutional right to be heard and to attend court proceedings just as those accused of crimes have a right to confront their accusers.

Baltimore Del. Elijah E. Cummings, however, pointed out that victims have as many as 30 rights in state statute. Maryland, the District 39 Democrat said, is among the nation's leaders on the issue.

Del. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat, wondered whether the amendment would give thousands of victims defrauded by a savings and loan the right to testify at a trial.

No, said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The amendment provides the right to be heard only when practicable -- at the court's discretion.

The statewide elections this fall clearly shaped this week's House debate. When a list of 96 delegates co-sponsoring the amendment came up in the House Tuesday, members began to laugh at their own electioneering.

"Does everyone have their name on there?" joked House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr, D-Allegany.

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