In both State and Federal Courts, victims of crime have a statutory right to be heard. The right to be heard is a very important right and one which deserves serious consideration. Defendants have a right to make any statement they deem appropriate to the Judge prior to the imposition of the sentence. This may include a plea for leniency, an explanation as to what led to their actions or how they have changes since the commission of the crime. The defendant’s attorney may also make persuasive remarks regarding sentencing. When crime victims exercise their right to be heard at sentencing, it’s an opportunity for the Judge to see the OTHER side of the story and provide for some balance in the sentencing process. Many victims find this to be helpful in the healing process. The impact of a crime is different for every victim and for every crime. How it affects the actual victim and those around them is unique. Concerns about the custodial status of the defendant also vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the victimization. Usually the right to be heard is done through a written Victim Impact Statement. However, the victim may also request to speak directly to the Judge at the sentencing hearing.
One may ask, “Does the victims’ voice really make any difference?” I am going to propose to you that, “Yes, victims are heard and it does make a difference.”
The mother of Stephanie Roper, who was brutally murdered while home from college, worked 15 years to have Maryland law re-written giving victims and surviving victims’ rights in the criminal justice system.
The mother of Cari Lightner started a campaign against drunk driving in California and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) was founded May, 1980
The murder of Adam Walsh propelled his father John Walsh into a national television show, America’s Most Wanted, that has resulted in the arrest of hundreds of wanted felons.
Erin’s Law was passed in Connecticut as the result of the voice of Erin Merryn, who as a child was sexually abused. Erin reclaimed her voice and is now on a crusade to make sure every child has the ability to use their voice and tell if they are being abused.
And the list can go on! One victim speaking out does make a difference. Below is a link to a video addressing the sentencing process in federal court. Although the video is specific to federal statutes and procedures, the information regarding the individuals involved and about the value of the victim’s voice is relevant for all crime victims, whether in the State or Federal system. http://www.ussc.gov/videos/victims-rights-and-federal-sentencing
Below are some tips if you are a victim and choose to exercise your right to be heard:
- Whenever you are addressing the Court, it is important to remember that this is a statement to the Judge, not the defendant(s).
- Let someone in the prosecuting office know of your desire to speak at the sentencing hearing.
- Prepare what you want to say in advance. Take some time to think about what you want to say. You can even write it out and read it or make notes on points you want to cover. Do what makes you most comfortable. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are the emotional and physical affects the crime has had?
- Has it affected your ability to work or to do other normal daily activities?
- How has the criminal act impacted your future and relationships?
- If speaking on behalf of someone i.e. your child, elderly parent, how has this crime changed their life?
- Make your comments to the point.
- Speak in your own words.
- Include a statement about your financial losses.
- Inform the Court of any concerns you have about your safety or retaliation.
- Remember that your statements are being recorded and become part of the permanent court record.
Reach out to a victim witness program, victim services program or the prosecuting attorney’s office to find out how to proceed with exercising your right to be heard. Remember that your voice is a powerful tool for change—for you individually and collectively in society. What you say matters and it does make a difference!
This article was written and submitted by Kim Roewert, Victim Specialist, Nebraska U.S. Attorney's Office