Victims' rights group to expand into city

Resource center to offer relatives legal advice, aid in fight to sit in on trials

March 02, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Theresa Dirubbo, noticing her 3-year-old granddaughter was bruised and beaten, was about to alert authorities. But before she could act, her daughter's boyfriend had killed the toddler, and was later convicted of the crime. Dirubbo was heartbroken at the loss of her granddaughter, then she suffered another blow: She was not permitted to sit through the trial because she was a witness in the case.

"You feel so left out," said Dirubbo, 47. "For closure, it's important to find out what happened."

The Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, an advocacy group, announced yesterday its expansion into Baltimore to help crime victims claim their legal rights - including observing trials, even if they testify in that trial.

Witnesses in criminal cases generally are not allowed in the courtroom to listen to other testimony. But according to Maryland law, if a victim is also a witness, that person may be allowed to attend the trial if a judge can be convinced that it would not taint the victim's potential testimony or otherwise be detrimental to the trial.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has agreed to work with the victim's center, said victims rarely, if ever, sit in on trials.

"Victims have the right to be present," Jessamy said. "But often, they are not allowed to remain in the courtroom."

Russell P. Butler, executive director of the center, said victims and their families such as Dirubbo are "routinely excluded" from the courtroom and often, the prosecutor is too occupied with the case to represent the victim in such a hearing. Butler said that is where the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center would step in on behalf of the victim.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Clifton J. Gordy said judges would decide the issue on a case-by-case basis.

"It doesn't become an issue until somebody says, `I want them included or excluded,'" Gordy said.

The judge added that he believes the concept can be beneficial for victims and families.

"If my daughter or son were involved in a crime of violence I would want to sit in on the trial," Gordy said.

For Dirubbo, watching the trial of Erik Stoddard, the man who killed her granddaughter, Calen Faith Dirubbo, would have helped ease some of her pain.

"You were so affected by this tragic and horrible thing, and you're left out of the loop," she said, noting that Calen would have turned 5 years old this weekend.

Butler said that in addition to helping victims sit in on trials, his center hopes to inform them of coming hearings, bail reviews and especially when defendants are released from jail.

The Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center was founded in 1982 in Upper Marlboro.

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