Judges pressed to pay more attention to rights of crime victims
Reno, Nev. — Listen to the victim in court. Make him or her part of the judicial process. Help provide legal and other aid to those who have been physically or emotionally harmed. See that the victim has sufficient fiscal resources. Provide for restitution or compensation for what has been lost. Treat him with respect.
But most of all - listen.
This, essentially, is the message that US judges are getting from advocates of victims' rights, government spokesmen, lawyers, social workers, fellow members of the judiciary - and victims of violent crime themselves.
More than 100 judges serving on the bench in the nation's municipal and state courts, representing all 50 states, heard these pleas from colleagues and others at a unique conclave on victims' rights held this week here at the National Judicial College (NJC) in Reno.
The judges were charged to share innovative ways they were dealing with the oft-forgotten and sometimes maligned victim in criminal trials.
They heard victims tell how they had lost their dignity and resources as the result of an insenstitve court process after surviving brutal attack.
For example, a southern California storekeeper lost his business after he was held up and shot. Medical and lawyers' bills forced his family to move in with relatives. This happened several years ago, and he is still in debt.
A Maryland librarian - a wife and mother - who was held at gunpoint, sexually assaulted, and kidnapped, said she was made to feel that she was the criminal. Her assailant, after a long, drawn-out pretrial procedure, was eventually brought to court and sentenced to life imprisonment. But for a year, she was subjected to painful reliving of the experience in court, overt threats by the defense, and personal harassment.
''I wouldn't encourage anybody to go through the court system,'' Geraldine Strong, this victim, boldly told the judges in attendance.
Others had similar tales: a mother who saw her four sons murdered before her eyes; a grandmother whose young granddaughter was molested and killed; another mother whose daughter was hit and killed by a car driven by a drunk who had a long record of driving under the influence.
All made the same point: In police investigations and the court process, the accused was accorded more rights, more courtesies, than the victim. In many cases, the state paid for the defendant's trial, while the victim or survivor bore heavy financial costs and losses.
Here, the judges were a captive audience. They did listen - some with somber exprsssions, some with tears in their eyes.
Judge V. Robert Payant, associate dean of the NJC, charged his colleagues: ''You need to address the rights of victims. You can resist, or you can lead the change.''
Judge Florence K. Murray of Rhode Island's State Supreme Court said that the idea of compensation for victims is coming of age in many states.
She also cited Warren Burger, chief justice of the United States, who in a recent Supreme Court decision held for the first time that ''courts may not ignore the rights of victims.''
Assistant US attorney Lois Haight Herrington called the treatment of victims in the US criminal justice system ''a national scandal.'' Mrs. Herrington heads President Reagan's Task Force on the Victims of Crime. She said that the majority of more than 1,000 victims interviewed by the task force said they would not cooperate with the police and courts if they had it to do over again.
Many judges here cited trial delays, often for several years, as a cause of much anguish and expense for victims. Many had to relive their ordeals over and over again during countless pretrial hearings. Some states, among them Arizona, have made significant progress in cutting the time between arrest and prosecution.
Judges also urged victim assistance programs, including explanation of the judicial process, and participation by victims in all phases of the judicial process - from plea bargaining to sentencing.
Many said that their principal role as jurists would be to return to their home communities and sensitize other judges to the plight of victims.
''We are determined to do something about the problem, and to spread the word ,'' said Judge Ernest S. Hayeck, presiding judge of the Central Distict Court in Worcester, Mass.
Judge Hayeck was a prime mover of this judicial conclave here. He says the National Judicial College plans a followup conference on victims' right a year from now. Other judges urged regional conclaves on this subject to educate more of the judiciary to the scope of the problem and to get them to take a leadership role in addressing it.