Crime victims asserting rights After feeling ignored, survivors get respect, push for amendment

March 23, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- America's crime victims, who have long felt rudely shoved aside when the government prosecuted their offenders, are suddenly gaining visibility and influence in the process.

They insist they do not want veto power over how prosecutors deal with criminals, but they do want a voice -- and they want a guaranteed chance to observe throughout. More and more, that's exactly what they are getting.

When Timothy J. McVeigh goes on trial in Denver later this month in the bombing of Oklahoma City's federal building, for example, victims' families back home in Oklahoma will be able to watch on closed-circuit television. Cameras are banned in federal courtrooms, but an act of Congress forced an exception in this case.

Just last week, Congress again came to the rescue: It passed a bill ensuring that the bombing victims could attend the trial, even if they planned to testify at a later sentencing hearing on how the blast affected their lives. The bill overturned the trial judge's order to keep them out.

In Tennessee, the family of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has joined in the effort to reopen the case of admitted assassin James Earl Ray, setting the stage for a potential trial the family hopes will bring "some sense of closure to the pain."

And in Texas, a murder victim's family in Fort Worth persuaded prosecutors to seek life in prison, instead of the death penalty, for two military academy cadets accused of killing a 16-year-old girl. The girl's family wanted her killers to have to spend their lives in prison.

The roll call of states putting victims' rights into their state constitutions has lengthened rapidly, demonstrating overwhelming support among voters. Now, a measure is pending in Congress for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing new rights for crime victims.

The movement's success has criminal defense lawyers worried.

"Government leaders who cherish historic constitutional protections should be gravely concerned that the ferocious momentum of the 'victims' rights' movement has drastically altered public perceptions to a degree that seriously threatens the fair trial rights of the citizen accused," argues Elisabeth A. Semel, a San Diego lawyer and a leading foe of the amendment on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Her experience with California's victims' rights amendment, she says, shows that victim witnesses are "routinely terrified to speak" with defense lawyers, because they feel they "belong" to the prosecution. Often, she adds, victims have veto power over plea bargaining.

What is happening in the criminal justice system may amount to no less than a revolution.

Changing a tradition

For nearly two centuries, that system has operated on the premise that crime is a public rather than a private wrong -- meaning that the state or the people at large stand in for the actual victims.

That tradition, running deep in English history, has meant that victims have no guaranteed role and no formal rights in the process. An 18th-century English court explained that view: "A criminal prosecution is not concerned in any way with compensation of the injured individual against whom the crime is committed, and his only part in it is that of an accuser and a witness for the state."

The movement's determination to change that tradition always has been fueled by the poignant personal stories of victims, such as Betty Jane Spencer, who became a victims' advocate after she was shot and her four sons murdered in 1977.

Spencer, now retired in Rockville, Ind., has told her story over and over on public platforms. The prosecutor in her case repeatedly stressed his obligation to protect the constitutional rights of the accused killers.

"When I asked about my rights and the rights of our four sons, I was told that as a victim I had no particular rights," she said. "I soon began to feel like another piece of evidence."

All across the country, victims or survivors -- who now are qualifying as victims themselves -- no longer are treated routinely the way Spencer says she was.

They are testifying about what crime has done to them so that they might influence what charges are brought and what sentences imposed; they act as advisers in plea negotiations; they can count on advance notice of court schedules; they get guaranteed seats in the courtroom audience and sometimes at the prosecutors' table; and they are told of plans for their assailants to be freed from prison.

Constitutional amendment

Still, leaders of the victims' rights movement will not count themselves as truly victorious until they succeed with the national constitutional amendment that is at the top of their agenda.

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