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A Constitutional Amendment for Victims Rights:
An Opposing View

Janice Harris Lord

Appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 25,2000

No one argues that Constitutional amendments should be taken lightly. However, Thomas Jefferson and it’s other founders designed the sacred document to change over time. And it has. A time came when slavery should be abolished – and we amended the Constitution to achieve it. A time came for women to vote – and we amended the Constitution to achieve it. The oft-cited phrase ”Don’t mess with the Constitution” clearly was not the intention of the founders.

It goes without question that the scales of justice are currently tipped. The United States Constitution grants 15 rights to the accused while granting 0 to the victims of the accused.

The amendment would rob defendants of none of their rights. I have served on the board of the National Victims Constitutional Amendment Network since it was founded 15 years ago, and never have we attempted to draft constitutional language that would diminish defendants’ constitutional rights. In fact, we have gone out of our way to protect them. The language of the amendment currently before Congress reads, ”Nothing in this article shall provide grounds to stay or continue any trial, reopen any proceeding or invalidate any ruling, except with respect to conditional release or restitution to provide rights guaranteed by this article in future proceedings, without staying or continuing a trial.” In simpler words, if a victim realizes after the fact that her rights were not granted, there is nothing she can do about it.

We agree with Laurence Tribe, Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, who is currently writing the constitutional amendment section of the massive two-volume American Constitutional Law, 3 rd edition. An avid protector of the Constitution, Dr. Tribe points out that a constitutional amendment is appropriate only when other means of justice are not attainable such as a needed recognition of a basic human right. He believes that the language of the Victims’ Rights Amendment meets that criteria. ”The rights in question – rights of crime victims not to be victimized yet again through the process by which government bodies and officials prosecute, punish, and/or release the accused or convicted offender – are indisputable basic human rights.”

A case in point is the Oklahoma City bombing trial. Two federal statutes, already on the books, gave victims the right to be present at all public court hearings and the right to present victim impact statements at sentencing hearings in capital cases. Without a federal Constitutional amendment to assure these statutory rights, presiding judge Richard Matsch required the bombing victims to choose one right or the other – not both. If a victim wanted to attend the trial, he could not give a victim impact statement. If a victim wanted to give a statement at sentencing, she could not attend the trial.

”That decision,” says Paul Cassell, Professor of Law at the University of Utah College of Law, ”reduces victims rights to nothing more than a paper promise.”

”We tried the statutes,” Dr. Cassell goes on. ”It is time to do more.”

The Constitutional Amendment for Victims Rights does not trump victims’ rights over defendants’ rights. It does not give victims any more right to alter their accounts before speaking to the Court than it does to the defendant who sits through the trial and then has the right to testify.

Look carefully at the rights of a victim of a crime of violence in the amendment language. None of the rights pertain to the fact-finding portion of a case or trial itself. The victim is simply given the same right as the defendant to know when the case comes before the court and when the offender is once again on the street. The victim has the right to address the court only after the offender has been found guilty, not before. The victim has the right to an order of restitution from the convicted offender. It does not say that the offender must pay full restitution to the victim. The amendment language is satisfied if the Court orders only one dollar. The victim has the right to have her safety considered in determining conditional release of the offender from custody.

Victims of crime do not want more than what is fair. They simply want to be assured of a seat and a voice at the table. They can only know that they have a place card at the table when their rights are in the same document as defendants’ rights – the United States Constitution.