Crime victims share stories of grief, frustration with legal system

Second of four planned community forums about issue held in Columbia

August 26, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Gut-wrenching stories of crimes at the hands of a father, a drunken driver and a pair of violent teens were among those retold and relived at a town hall meeting Tuesday night in Columbia.

Most of the speakers' voices were calm as they advocated for change in the criminal justice system and for victims' rights.

Residents of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties were invited to talk about their experiences as victims or relatives of victims before a panel at Long Reach High School, the second of four regional meetings planned statewide.

Representatives of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger joined Howard County Police Chief William McMahon and Howard County State's Attorney Dario Broccolino on the panel, along with six other representatives of state and local government.

Testimony on victims' rights, laws, services and issues was solicited by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention because "we don't know enough about what it's like to be a victim," said executive director Kristen Mahoney, who also moderated the meeting.

Speakers' input will be included in a comprehensive report on victims' services that will be compiled and delivered to Gov. Martin O'Malley after more state residents have had an opportunity to address the panel, she said.

"It's rare to hear from victims who are not in a crisis situation," Mahoney said. "It's a luxury to listen. We know we're not perfect and we know we can do better."

Eight speakers shared their stories of tragedy with the audience of 55. Their speeches were intermingled with the pleas of 10 representatives of various victims' groups who spoke on behalf of their clients.

Lisa Spicknall told the audience that, 11 years ago, her ex-husband, Richard Spicknall II of Laurel, shot their two preschool-age children with a handgun he had illegally purchased at a pawn shop. She said she had to "fight for her basic rights in a cumbersome and tiring process" that needs to be streamlined so that victims receive the treatment and the rights they deserve.

James Nelson Sullivan and his wife, Joan, drove more than four hours from their home in West Virginia to attend the forum. They relocated from Howard County after their son was killed in Ellicott City by a drunken driver in 2003.

James Sullivan said that Jay, then 42, had been thrown 100 feet from his motorcycle after being struck by a car at St. John's Lane and U.S. 40.

Sullivan read from a lengthy list of careless and insensitive errors that allegedly took place in the aftermath of his son's fatal accident, in which he said no charges were filed against the female driver because of a technicality.

Mistakes included the discovery that his son's body had been taken to a donor center, even though he wasn't registered as an organ donor, and that after listing three different times of death, hospital workers had still transported his lifeless body for an X-ray, he said.

"No ticket should be written for negligent driving when drunk driving is involved," said Sullivan, claiming that the woman's blood-alcohol content was 0.29, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08. Since the driver paid the ticket issued to her, the state's attorney's office said she couldn't be charged with anything else in the incident, according to Sullivan.

After the forum, Joan Sullivan said she and her husband had "called every lawyer you can imagine before finally finding someone to take their case" because most attorneys believed it was unwinnable. She said they had to give up one of their grave sites to bury their son because of mounting legal expenses at the time.

"I don't know what went wrong, but I think that everything went wrong," James Sullivan told the panel.

Crystal Mason, whose 14-year-old daughter, Ashley Nicole Mason, was murdered in Columbia in November 2000, acknowledged that the details of the killing were graphic, then proceeded to recount how her daughter was given alcohol, beaten and sexually assaulted before being stabbed 34 times and dragged by her feet into the woods.

Because of the ages of Ashley's assailants, consideration was not given to the death penalty or to a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Mason said.

"I resent that as a taxpayer, I have kept them alive and safe," said Mason, who was asleep when her daughter sneaked out of their Long Reach home. "We need to take time to rethink the qualifications for the death penalty or for life without parole."

Renee Weems of Baltimore said her teenage nephew was shot and killed in Baltimore on Aug. 14. She found herself planning his funeral since her sister was "nearly comatose with grief" over her son's death in the streets.

"Do we need more officers? Stronger laws? More panel discussions? No. We need a call to action," Weems said.

She added: "We must serve everyone with compassion and the legal system has to work for all of us. My sister is angry because she feels no one cares. The question is: Is anyone listening?"

Mahoney assured all of the speakers that "your words and your time were not given in vain."

"You have inspired us to go back to do even better," she told the audience before adjourning the two-hour meeting.

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