STATEMENT OF ROBERTA ROPER, CO-CHAIRPERSON
NATIONAL VICTIMS’ CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT NETWORK
IN SUPPORT OF HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION 91
May 9, 2002
Chairman Sensenbrenner and members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution: I am Roberta Roper, Co-Chairperson of the National Victims’ Constitutional Amendment Network and Executive Director of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, Inc. NVCAN is the national coalition of victim advocates, legal scholars and victim service organizations, and the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, Inc., is a Maryland victim advocacy and service non-profit organization bearing our slain daughter’s name. Both organizations proudly express their strong support for the constitutional amendment for crime victims’ rights as introduced in the House By Representative Steve Chabot.
It is with honor that I come before you today to speak for everyday Americans who place their trust in our system and their dependence on government to do the right thing for justice. Most importantly, I speak for those whose voices can no longer be heard ... our sons, and daughters, spouses, parents, brothers and sister, friends. On September 11th, the terrorists’ attack awakened the consciousness of America to the reality of random violence. Americans began to learn what every crime victim knows ... that by chosen acts of criminal violence, innocent lives are turned upside down and forever changed or tragically ended. I ask you to remember those lessons and that any one of us can become a victim of crime. How would you wish to treated by our criminal justice system?
Providing crime victims with protected rights is not a complicated legal issue. Consequently, my testimony will place the focus where it correctly belongs ... on the human rights of American citizens who believe that they deserve basic rights to fundamental fairness under the Constitution of the United States. These are rights that every person accused of, or convicted of a crime deserves and enjoys. Yet everyday Americans are appalled and disbelieving to learn that, unlike criminal defendants, they have no similar rights. That’s what this amendment is about ... guaranteeing equal justice for all of us under the law of all of us, the U. S. Constitution.
In announcing his endorsement of the amendment before you, President Bush said that "The protection of victims’ rights is one of those rare instances when amending the Constitution is the right thing to do." The framers of our Constitution understood that the sacred document they were creating would need to change as the needs of society required change. They were creating a "more perfect union," not a perfect one. That wisdom allowed our Constitution to abolish slavery and to give voting rights to women. Those human rights could not be sufficiently protected by state or federal laws. Likewise, this amendment is necessary in order to give protection and balanced consideration to the rights of victims. More than two decades of efforts in securing state and federal laws are evidence of their failure to provide victims’ rights. Lawrence Tribe, Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School points out that a constitutional amendment is appropriate only when other means are not attainable such as a needed recognition of a basic human right. He believes that the language of this 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."
The whole history of our country has taught us that basic human rights must be share the protection of our nation’s fundament law ... our Constitution. The language of this amendment has been carefully crafted to preserve the protections of accused or convicted offenders, while enabling victims and survivors of criminal violence to have minimal rights not to be excluded from criminal proceedings that are the most important events in their lives! It will establish a basic national standard which will enable individual states to build upon that foundation.
(These rights include timely and reasonable notice of any public proceeding involving the crime and of any release or escape of the accused; to not being excluded from such public proceedings and reasonably to be heard at public release, plea, sentencing, reprieve and pardon proceedings; and to adjudicative decisions that consider the victim’s safety, interest in avoiding reasonable delay, and just and timely claims for restitution from the offender.)
I speak to the need for this amendment not only from personal experience, but after twenty years of advocacy and service to thousands of crime victims in my home state of Maryland. Like many advocates, the catalyst for advocacy and service was my family’s experience with the criminal justice system when our oldest child, our beloved daughter, Stephanie, was kidnaped, brutally raped, tortured and murdered in 1982 by two strangers who came upon her disabled car on a country road. Like countless victims and survivors of that era, we discovered that unlike our daughter’s killers, we had no rights to be informed, no rights to attend the trial and no rights to be heard before sentencing. Like countless other families, then and now, we struggled not only with the devastating effects of the crimes committed against our loved ones, but with consequences that were in many ways worse ... being shut out of a criminal justice system we believed in and depended upon. In trying to rebuild our broken lives, the greatest challenge was trying to give hope to four surviving children ... children whom we had taught to respect and trust the criminal justice system that had now failed us! That challenge is forever etched in my mind by the memory of the day one of our sons came home from school, explaining that he could no longer pledge allegiance to the flag with his classmates because "liberty and justice for all" didn’t include us.
You may conclude that because this happened twenty years ago, this surely would not happen today. And while great progress has been made in the passage of good laws, both on the state and federal level and constitutional amendments passed in 33 states, the sad reality is that victims’ rights continue to be denied. None of these state or federal laws are able to match the constitutionally protected rights of offenders. The result is that crime victims remain second class citizens in our nation’s system of justice. Despite the passage of more than sixty victims’ rights laws and a state constitutional amendment in Maryland, many victims conclude that our criminal justice system is more criminal than just when it comes to ensuring their rights. This Constitutional Amendment will ensure that both victims’ and defendants’ rights are given fullest effect. Neither one will be superior, but both will be given equal consideration.
Some of those victims and survivors are here today. One is Dawn Sawyer Walls, whose parents, I might add have dedicated their lives to serving communities; Dawn’s father was a police officer for 22 years, and her mother is the Executive Director of COPS. Dawn was 6 months pregnant and the manager of a convenience store when a robber with a sawed off shotgun ordered her to lie face down as he emptied the store’s cash drawer. In violation of Maryland laws, Dawn was not notified when a plea agreement was struck. As a result, she was not present in court to give a victim impact statement and was not able to request restitution from the offender. This disposition was characterized as a "good outcome"... and besides, she was told, "you didn’t suffer physical injuries." The trauma of this event had a severe financial impact for her young family because she was unable to return to work.
Sherri Rippeon and John Dobbin also sit behind me. Two years ago, their infant daughter, Victoria, died of blunt force trauma inflicted by their babysitter’s boyfriend. Seeking to ensure compliance with Maryland law regarding their rights to attend the public trial, Sherri and John filed a Crime Victim Notification Request Form. Nevertheless, the trial court excluded them from the courtroom, and even after they filed a pro se Demand for Rights Form, the judge continued to deprive them from observing the trial.
When Teresa Baker’s only son was murdered, she too, fulfilled the victim’s requirement to request notification regarding the right to be informed. She was in court when her son’s killer pleaded guilty to 2nd degree murder and was sentenced to thirty years; however, no one explained to Teresa that under the terms of the ABA plea, the convicted offender would be released in less than three years! Consequently, she learned about his release by chance and that painful discovery led Teresa to ask "why didn’t someone tell me the truth?"
Cecelia and Dexter Sellman’s son was an honor roll high school student when he was shot down and killed by two young men. They relied on the criminal justice system to bring some justice to their family through restitution from the offender... not for revenge, not to replace their loss, but for their out of pocket expenses and to hold the offenders accountable for their actions. The State flatly told Cecelia that they would not request restitution ... a violation of a right under Maryland law not only for the victim, but an obligation of the prosecuting attorney. Like the other victims here today, the Sellmans believe that the system their family depended upon failed them.
It is important to stress that this proposed constitutional amendment has little to do with the punishment of offenders, but everything to do with how our system of justice treats citizens who become innocent victims of crime. Certainly, law abiding citizens expect that those who violate the law will be held accountable for their actions; however, treating crime victims with respect and not excluding them from proceedings surrounding the crimes against them is separate and distinct. While one crime victim may choose not to be informed, present and heard at proceedings, it should not be the basis for denying rights to those victims who chose those rights.
And finally, I ask that you listen to the law-abiding citizens of our nation. I am confident that your constituents will tell you that it is time to approve this victims’ rights amendment. State constitutional amendments have won overwhelming approval in 33 states; in 1994, the Maryland amendment had voter support of 92.5%! Never before has there been a proposed law, bi-partisan in support, that could make such a significant difference in the lives of so many Americans every year. We ask you to remember that the Constitution belongs to the people ... let the Constitution protect all the people of this nation with equal justice.
(Roberta Roper, Executive Director, Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, Inc., may be reached locally at: 14750 Main Street, Suite 1 B, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772-3055; (301-952-0063)