Distorting victims' rights

Senate vote: A constitutional amendment could actually harm victims and rights of innocent.

April 23, 2000

IT'S AN election year. You can tell by the flurry of votes on proposed constitutional amendments in Congress this month. The latest, set for the Senate this week, is perhaps the most deceptive and dangerous -- a victims' rights amendment.

On the surface it seems reasonable, similar to rights adopted in 32 states. It would guarantee crime victims the right to speak at parole, plea-bargain or sentencing hearings, to be notified of an offender's release, to restitution, and a speedy trial.

But wait a minute: Isn't the defendant the one who has a constitutional right to a speedy trial? This amendment would change all that: Victims would have rights equal to a defendant.

That's just the start of the dangers. The amendment doesn't define who's a victim. Parents? Ex-spouses? Cousins? Boyfriends?

It would create a third party in trials intent on retribution, even though the defendant may not have committed the crime.

It would give victims the right to oppose plea bargains. One of the lead lawyers in the Oklahoma City bombing case says this would have made it virtually impossible to convict Timothy McVeigh.

Victims also would have the right to demand a speedy trial -- even if prosecutors say they need more time to build a winnable case. And what happens if the "victims" disagree? In the Oklahoma City case, there would have been thousands of "victims," many entitled to court-appointed lawyers.

This could lead to grotesque distortions. A battered wife who strikes back and maims her husband could wind up paying restitution to the "victim." So could a shopkeeper who shoots a robber -- the "victim" becomes the robber.

We fear for the right to a fair trial. Crime victims' prejudgement of the defendent clashes with the notion that you're innocent until proven guilty.

Victims deserve certain rights. But not in the Constitution. Why hasn't Congress passed federal laws to assist them? It could be decades before a constitution-cluttering amendment is approved.

This is the wrong approach. The proposal could damage our court system and our fundamental rights.

We urge Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes to vote against this ill-conceived constitutional amendment -- and then commit to drawing up more clearly defined laws giving crime victims a voice in court.

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