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Debating the Value of Victims' Rights Laws

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Debating the Value of Victims' Rights Laws

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Debating the Value of Victims' Rights Laws

Debating the Value of Victims' Rights Laws

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The federal government and every state have laws granting victims of crime certain legal rights. Prosecutors and victims' rights group say these laws let victims' voices be heard. But defense lawyers argue they threaten the rights of defendants.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Every year, the Justice Department designates a National Crime Victims' Rights Week. That week has just ended. In recent decades, crime victims have steadily gained more legal rights, so every state now has laws protecting crime victims. But experts disagree over whether such laws are a good idea.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this look at the debate.

ARI SHAPIRO: In his 20 years as a prosecutor in Missouri, Phillip Grunwag(ph) has learned you can't always predict what a victim will want.

Mr. PHILLIP GRUNWAG (Prosecutor, Missouri): I had a particularly violent homicide case; it was a murder in the first degree. A husband killed his wife while he was high on cocaine after she refused to have sex with him because she was recovering from a caesarian section after the birth of their first child.

SHAPIRO: The murder was gruesome, and in the minds of the prosecutors, it was a clear death penalty case. Grunwag checked in with the dead woman's parents who were left to raise their grandchild.

Mr. GRUNWAG: And they talked to me about it and they said, you know, we're not sure a death sentence for this defendant is in this child's best interest.

SHAPIRO: The grandparents convinced Grunwag. He asked for life without parole and the judge agreed. In that example, everyone was satisfied. But Pennsylvania defense lawyer Peter Goldberger says in his experience, victims' rights often come at the expense of defendants' rights.

Mr. PETER GOLDBERGER (Defense Lawyer): There is another thumb on the scales against the accused. And that's going to produce - inevitably, it's going to produce more wrongful convictions and more excessive punishment.

SHAPIRO: Goldberger had a case study of his own, another horrific murder, in which a young woman was kidnapped, raped, and killed. The surviving husband delivered a moving victim impact statement at the trial, and the jury sentenced Goldberger's client to death.

Mr. GOLDBERGER: It turned out, 20-some years later through DNA testing, that he was innocent.

SHAPIRO: Goldberger believes the victim's impact statement was compelling but ultimately irrelevant to the jury's task of making a reasoned decision about the fate of the accused. Victims are becoming more involved in trials than ever before. Sarah Hammond works on criminal justice issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ms. SARAH HAMMOND (National Conference of State Legislatures): There's been - I think it's 27,000 victims' rights enactments passed since 1980 in all the states.

SHAPIRO: The rules go beyond impact statements and consultation rights. Some laws mandate notification, keeping victims posted about the progress of the case, or restitution - letting victims try to get money back from criminals.

Then there are laws that provide for witness protection and confidentiality.

Ms. HAMMOND: There's just such a myriad of laws out there all the way from specific to broad. And also states have passed constitutional rights.

SHAPIRO: Thirty-three states have victims' rights in their constitutions. A proposed federal constitutional amendment failed in 1995. Then, three years ago, Congress passed a law called The Crime Victims' Rights Act. The wording is very broad. For example, victims should be, quote, "treated with fairness and with respect for the victim's dignity and privacy."

A federal panel is trying to figure out what exactly that means. One proposal they're considering would entitle victims to their own attorneys and let them appeal verdicts they don't like. University of Utah Law School professor and judge, Paul Cassell says the traditional two-party adversarial criminal justice system may become a thing of the past.

Mr. PAUL CASSELL (Judge; Law, University of Utah): I think we are moving in the direction of a three-party system: The prosecutor represents society, the defense attorney represents the defendant, and we need to get counsel for crime victims so that they have their voices heard in the process as well.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department recently funded nine legal clinics across the country for victims' attorneys. John Gillis directs the Justice Department's office for victims of crime.

Mr. JOHN GILLIS (Director, Office for Victims of Crime) These are attorneys who work pro bono. They will represent the victim in court. They will help them get through that maze of the criminal justice system. They are not involved in the prosecution of the case; just the victim's rights to make sure that those rights are afforded the victim.

SHAPIRO: That sends shivers down the spines of many defense attorneys who worry that these developments will skew the balance between government and accused in a trial.

For the victims themselves, many of these changes are welcome, if imperfect, adjustments. Renny Cushing is executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

Mr. RENNY CUSHING (Executive Director, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights): I think a lot of what's been done with victims' services have been, you know, akin to trying to put a Cadillac converter on a '57 Chevy, and you can do it, but it doesn't make it run very well.

SHAPIRO: He says crime victims have all sorts of needs that have longed been ignored, and no matter how hard the criminal justice system works to meet those needs, the primary focus will always be on the alleged offender.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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