CONTENTS of this page and Links to other stories:
Watch the several CLTV coverage stories of one mother's courageous struggle:
On August 30, 2009 on the Chicago lakefront at the Gold Star Chicago Police Memorial Park behind Soldier Field at 1 pm - we had a great event!.
We have watched each year as the family and supporters of C number prisoners who have committed some of the most heinous murders in Illinois history have had an annual picnic -a picnic in support of providing early release for convicted murderers. With no thought or expressed concern to the victims of these crimes. With no acknowledgment of the seriousness of the offenses for which the "C Number" (convicted pre-1978 under the old indeterminate sentencing model) are being incarcerated.
We decided to show them where their attention really ought to be paid - to the victims of these crimes. So we are going to offer the good citizens of Illinois who want to show who really deserves their support a chance to come to a picnic of their own. And since many of the C Number prisoners are "cop-killers" we are holding this picnic of ours with our law enforcement hero colleagues.
Call with any questions 847-446-7073. The event is co-sponsored by IllinoisVictims.Org, the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Gold Star Families and Illinois Concerns of Police Survivors.
or call 224-430-0250
To CONTACT HANNAH'S CAMPAIGN:
email@example.com or call
Don't miss this powerful video made about all the Chicago Public School children who have been shot and killed. We can and must end this nightmare carnage in what has now become the nation's murder capital.
A story just for fun: The End of Five
Years of Great Television for Victims: Boston Legal
Because of her work nationally with victims of gun violence, IllinoisVictims.org founder Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins was invited to visit the set of the TV Show Boston Legal which is produced and directed by people who care deeply about victims and whose story lines over the five year run of the show taught us a lot about good lawyers standing up for good causes for victims.
Pictured: Jennifer on the Boston Legal set in the chair always occupied by William Shatner's character "Denny Crane", holding his proverbial "scotch and cigar". This photo was taken two days before the series ended filming forever.
We will miss you all - and thank you from ALL victims to David E. Kelley and Bill D'Elia and the cast, writers and crew of a fine TV show. You made our lives and nation a better place to live!
Jennifer Bishop of the Brady Campaign and IllinoisVictims.Org speaking at a press conference organized by Dr Connie Catelloni and other NIU parents after a mentally ill man shoots, kills and injures students, terrorizing the DeKalb campus. The families demanded that lawmakers in Springfield and Washington D.C. enact regulations that were consistent, effective, and universal regarding the access of mentally ill people to guns. There should be a background check every time a gun changes hands in this nation.
These families were scared to death for their children and spoke with tremendous emotional impact about our collective societal responsibility to keep our college campuses safe by enacting gun regulations that are effective in keeping dangerous people from getting access to them.
Coverage in the SunTimes:
February 17, 2008
The aftermath of a terrible crime like the Northern Illinois University shooting rampage that left six people dead and 16 wounded always produces much debate over what can be done to prevent another mass murder at a school or in the workplace. People reel from feeling helpless to expressing outrage about things that could be done that have not been done.
"I don't know what you really could do to stop what happened. It's like lightning striking," said Mike Henderson, curator of Earth sciences at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford. His friend, teacher Joseph Peterson, was one of those left wounded by Stephen Kazmierczak.
A different view comes from Jennifer Bishop of Chicago. Her life, too, was altered by shocking violence. Her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child were the victims of 16-year-old David Biro in Winnetka in 1990. "I refuse to believe we can't fix this thing, because we can," said Bishop, who after those murders became active in the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
They're both right, of course. We can't prevent every unhinged person with a gun from killing. But that doesn't mean we stop trying.
There's still a lot we don't know about why Kazmierczak opened fire in DeKalb. Some say he was acting erratic after he stopped taking medication. Though he may have had past psychiatric troubles, quite a few accounts seem to agree that he was not obviously a social misfit, as was the case with Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who killed 33 people last spring at Virginia Tech.
But based on what we know now, society needs to do a much better job of keeping guns away from people with mental problems. In 1990, Illinois passed a law requiring hospitals and other institutions to report to the State Police people they treat who are deemed a threat to themselves and to others. That disqualifies those people who have been inpatients treated for mental problems from having a firearms owner identification card.
An updated law is set to go into effect June 1 broadening that reporting requirement to include medical professionals who treat outpatients with potentially dangerous mental problems. The new law also obliges the state to report information about any person prohibited from having an FOID card to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech killings, President Bush last month signed the first major federal gun-control measure in more than a dozen years. It strengthens the national background check system by providing money to states for supplying records of prohibited gun purchasers to the program. The details are still being worked out, but the NIU killings should give new urgency to that mission.
Even the new Illinois law might not have stopped Kazmierczak from getting the guns he bought in Champaign, where he was working on an advanced degree in social work at the University of Illinois. We won't know that until we know more about his treatment.
But this common-sense measure at least takes a step toward responding to Bishop's heartfelt appeal: Fix it, because we can.
Illinois Victim's Voice works to save
Innocent and Dying Man
Montell Johnson is a 42-year-old man who spends every hour of every day in a hospital bed. He can't move, and he can't talk. He eats through a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. Years of inactivity have taken their toll: "He has no body tissue or muscle now," his mother, Gloria, says. "He's very sensitive to touch, and so it's excruciating pain when you touch his body … There's nothing really there to protect him." He weighs 70 lbs. Johnson suffers from multiple sclerosis, a chronic and debilitating illness that attacks the central nervous system and erodes a person's capacity for basic functions. He is in the final stages of MS and is suffering from a long list of related and other ailments, including hepatitis C, which threatens to take his life. Just over a year ago, a doctor gave Johnson less than six months to live. That he has defied the prognosis is undoubtedly due to the dedicated care of his mother, rather than the quality of his medical care. That's because Johnson is not at a hospital. He is a prisoner at Sheridan Correctional Center, in La Salle County, Ill.
Five days a week, Gloria Johnson-Ester drives from her home on the South Side of Chicago to Sheridan, two hours away ("two-and-a-half to three in traffic"). Since her son was diagnosed with MS in 2001, she has seen his health deteriorate dramatically due to gross medical neglect by the Illinois prison system. "Inmates aren't considered a priority," she says, "but I always tell people, they are human beings. … Whether they are guilty or innocent, when they get sick, you treat them."
Johnson was convicted of murder in 1999 and sent to death row. In 2003, his sentence was commuted to 40 years, and on Oct. 30, 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich commuted his sentence to time served. This means the state of Illinois has no legal basis for keeping him incarcerated. But now he faces a new challenge: the possibility of extradition to California for different charge. For Gloria, who has been fighting for years to bring her son home for the last months of his life, this would be an unthinkable defeat. "I know one thing," she says. "If they take me away, then he'll just give up."
"An Easy Conviction"
Johnson was sentenced to die for the 1994 slaying of Dorianne Warnsley. Warnsley, 23, died a harrowing death, first shot and then beaten with a hammer and stabbed with a screwdriver. Her body was found in a cornfield in Macon County, Ill. She was five months pregnant.
Johnson has admitted that he was on the scene the night Warnsley was killed, but he insists that he did not commit crime. To some extent, his actions belie his claims: Johnson left Illinois for California after it happened, adopted a different name, and then was arrested for another killing and robbery, getting a life sentence. When the state of Illinois sought to bring him back to be tried, he maintained his innocence. He still does.
Johnson has many supporters who believe him. Perhaps none is more significant than Terry Hoyt, Dorianne Warnsley's mother.
"The judicial system in Macon County sucks," she says over the phone on the day after Thanksgiving. "I'm not a teenager, and I'm using that word. It should be totally investigated.
"My daughter was murdered in '94. The guy who actually committed the murder was not arrested until three years later." The man she is referring to, Carlos Stokes, provided multiple confessions, only to turn around and testify against Johnson in exchange for a 15-year sentence. According to Hoyt, not only was the investigation flawed -- "The police were so far in left field it was ridiculous" -- when it came time to press charges, Johnson, who had been friends with Dorianne, was railroaded.
"The prosecutor struck a deal," says Ted Pearson, a prison-reform activist in Chicago, who has spent years working on Johnson's case.
As he describes it, Stokes, Johnson, and a third woman, Sandra Dye, "had gotten into a row with the victim, and one of them, Stokes, actually murdered her. … He didn't deny that he had confessed to that, and the woman also gave statements corroborating his. But (at trial) he said that Montell told him to do it -- so that made Montell not just guilty by being there, but also guilty by directing the whole thing." Dye was never charged.
Stokes' plea bargain -- and his eventual release -- took place without Hoyt's knowledge, a violation of her rights as a crime victim that still angers her to this day. She describes how she showed up at court on the day of his scheduled trial, only to be told by the judge, "we took care of that yesterday afternoon."
"I told him and I told the state's attorney, they messed with the wrong mother," she says.
Johnson's trial lasted one week. He defended himself. Asked whether he was an effective lawyer on his own behalf, Hoyt says no. "I think it was because he was starting to get sick then with the MS," she says. "And I think he was overwhelmed, because I think he really thought that the truth would come out."
Hoyt felt she was witnessing a miscarriage of justice. "I had pictures of (Dorianne)," she recalls, "and I cried and I said, 'God please let me know that I'm not losing my mind.' I was so confused … and when you're heartbroken on top of that it's just really hard to handle."
In Hoyt's view, Johnson is serving time that belongs to Stokes: "You know why they chose Montell?" she says. "Because Montell was doing life in California -- he was an easy conviction."
"They Were Doing Their Best to Help Montell Get Killed"
Details on how Johnson ended up serving life in California are scarce. Not even his mother seems to know much about it. What is clear is that his record was less than pristine and, in 1994, he was sentenced to life for a murder and robbery of a drug dealer. He was 29 years old and defended himself, under the alias Marcellus Bates.
A few years into his life sentence, the state of Illinois sought to bring him back to face trial for the slaying of Warnsley. In December 1998, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed an extradition order to send Johnson back to Illinois. Everyone agrees that California sent Johnson to Illinois to die.
"They sent him back on the condition that they get a death penalty," says Pearson, the prison-reform activist.
Johnson's attorney, Harold C. Hirshman, concurs: "The only purpose for California sending Montell to Illinois was so that Illinois could promise to try him and obtain a death sentence," he says. "They were doing their best to help Montell get killed. "Indeed, the executive agreement between the two states, dated Dec. 4, 1998, lays it out clearly. Not only did it decree that Johnson would "be extradited forthwith to the State of Illinois for trial," but it went on: "It is further agreed that if MARCELLUS BATES a/k/a MONTELL JOHNSON shall be acquitted of all capital charges or all capital charges are dropped in the State of Illinois or, should the prosecution by the State of Illinois result in a final disposition other than the imposition of a judgment and sentence of death, he shall be returned to the State of California at the expense of the State of Illinois at the earliest reasonable time.
The agreement even specified what should happen if Johnson's sentence were to change, stipulating that "should the sentence of death received … be vacated or commuted to a final judgment other than the sentence of death, such that he is no longer sentenced to death in the State of Illinois, then he shall be made available to the State of California to remain in the custody of the California Department of Corrections."
"It was like an agreement that he had to be killed," says Pearson, " … which just kind of makes your skin crawl."
The extradition agreement was signed by Illinois' Secretary of State George Ryan. Four years later, however, as governor of Illinois, Ryan famously emptied death row, commuting all death sentences to life without parole and pardoning four innocent prisoners. Already sick with MS, Johnson's sentence was commuted to 40 years. Despite the executive agreement with California, Johnson stayed where he was.
Why Illinois failed to keep up its end of the death pact is unclear.
"They either forgot, or they decided not to, or something," says Pearson. "Whatever they did, they violated the agreement … Gov. Ryan signed it, so he could not say he was ignorant of it. My guess is they just screwed up, and since Montell was still in prison, nobody made a big fuss about it."
"They told me that they were going to send a plane to come get Montell," says Gloria, who, with the help of his attorneys, has requested a "compassionate clemency" for Johnson from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. " … We're just waiting to see what the governor does."
Last month, Hoyt wrote a letter to Schwarzenegger asking him to grant clemency to Johnson: "I personally feel, for several reasons, Mr. Johnson was 'underhandedly' kept in Illinois and brutalized by Illinois Dept. of Corrections, almost dying in Nov. 2007," she wrote. "Mr. Johnson has chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, weights 70 lb.., is almost completely paralyzed, cannot talk, has to be fed through a feeding tube, requires daily doctor visits and 24 x 7 skilled nursing care.
On Oct. 30, 2008, Illinois Gov. Blagojevich commuted the sentence/pardoned Mr. Johnson, and I am told, it had a lot to do with my constant support of Mr. Johnson's innocence in my daughter's murder. I am now appealing to you, Sir, please grant Montell Johnson clemency, so that he can go home and be with his family for the final few days he might have left to live. This would give me 'some' peace in my heart, that I have succeeded in reaping 'some' justice for my daughter after all these years.
"Montell Was Not Cared For Properly"
Gloria's first run-in with the health care provided by Illinois' Department of Corrections was in 1999, when her son was awaiting trial in a Macon County jail. She had attended a wedding reception in Grand Rapids, Mich., when she received word from her mother that Jordan had fallen and been knocked unconscious. She drove to the Decatur, Ill., jail, only to be barred from visiting him. By the time she saw him, it was Tuesday. "I asked Montell what they gave him. He said, 'Tylenol.' "
In January 2001, Johnson was diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. By then, he was at Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison that Gloria describes as "a death trap." As the illness took effect, he was transferred to different facilities, none of which were equipped to deal with his deteriorating health. Between 2001 and 2005, he was not seen by a neurologist.
By 2005, he could not stand, walk, bathe or dress himself. Despite this, he remained in the condemned unit at Menard, designated a "high escape risk." Eventually, he was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, where, in February 2006, he was diagnosed with dementia.
Finally, in April 2006, Johnson was transferred to Dixon Correctional Facility, supposedly, the best medical facility in the Illinois prison system. "I'd been begging to put him there," Gloria recalled. "But that was his death sentence."
It was at Dixon that Johnson developed severe bedsores, which Gloria discovered in 2006. He had been complaining about being in pain. "When I rolled him over," recalls Gloria, "I saw the wounds."
Bed sores are preventable but serious injuries that can be life threatening if left untreated. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Bedsores, more accurately called pressure sores or pressure ulcers, are areas of damaged skin and tissue that develop when sustained pressure -- usually from a bed or wheelchair -- cuts off circulation to vulnerable parts of your body." For someone who is bedridden, bedsores can form anywhere, from one's lower back to the rims of one's ears. The key to avoiding them is to move a patient continually throughout the course of the day. Nutrition is also important. But Johnson was getting neither. The result was Stage Four bed sores, the most serious and advanced stage, "in which a large-scale loss of skin occurs, along with damage to muscle, bone and even supporting structures such as tendons and joints."
"Montell was not cared for properly by the Department of Corrections," says Pearson, the activist. "Really, they just couldn't take care of him. They were not equipped." After Gloria saw the bedsores, she became much more vigilant about her son's care. In August 2007, she started a blog documenting her visits with him, detailing his condition, the state of his care and her many frustrating interactions with the prison warden and medical staff, who eventually discovered the blog and tried to get it taken down.
Early posts described the strange visiting area allocated to her and her son at Dixon, a "laundry room with a washing machine, dryer and dirty and clean linen."
8/29/07 -- Today I visited Montell. When I arrived at the infirmary Montell, was in the gerry chair, and he looked very uncomfortable. He tried to change his position from left to right. He was nonverbal and tears were streaming down his face. The washing machine and dyer was running and quite noisy, and this seemed to be irritating him. I asked him if anybody had done anything to him and he shook his head as to be saying "No." I asked him if he had received all his meals, he shook his head from side to side.
Subsequent entries chronicled the many times she was denied visiting privileges for seemingly arbitrary reasons, as well as Johnson's transfer, in the fall of 2007, from the correctional unit to a medical unit, where he nearly died. A post from Nov. 6, 2007 describes the day his feeding tube was put in. The next day, she wrote:
"The rumor I heard yesterday became a reality today. Yes, Montell was going to be taken back to Dixon Correctional Center sometime today. I talked with Dr. Amissi Patel, and she stated that Montell was too weak to have any more surgeries and that they were releasing him. I told her that with the feeding tube in him they were just setting him up to die. He wouldn't have been in this condition in the first place if they had taken care of him. I spent most of the day trying to contact people to have them stop this move back to Dixon. Montell just laid in my arms and held my hand … I stayed until the ambulance people came to get him and helped dress him for the trip back to Dixon. I left before they did because I couldn't take seeing them take him back there, and I didn't want him to see the tears streaming down my face. Lord please help us.
The last post on the blog, dated Dec. 19, 2007, begins: "My visiting privileges revoked today because of my concern and expressions of Montell's health care."
"The Last Thing California Needs is Another Sick Prisoner"
Anyone familiar with California's prison system knows that it is the last state that should be taking on the care of another sick prisoner. The state has been besieged for years by reports that its bloated prison system -- which houses 170,000 people in facilities built for 100,000 -- is overwhelmed by the number of prisoners in need of health care, many of them elderly. In fact, California's prison medical facilities are currently under receivership, which Johnson's attorney Harold Hirshman explains, "means literally that a federal judge has appointed a person outside the prison system to run the delivery of medical care." The current receiver, J. Clark Kelso, has described California's medical facilities as being "in an abysmal state of disrepair." (The cost of repair, as reported this spring by the Los Angeles Times, "nearly triples the $2.5 billion the governor proposed for new medical facilities in his budget submitted to lawmakers in January.")
"The last thing California needs, given that it's under receivership for failing to provide constitutional minimum health care, is another sick prisoner to take care of," says Hirshman. Yet, he says, "logic doesn't seem to have much to do with any of these decisions. I believe that it is simply that he's a murderer in California, so they want to take him back."
"We Don't Want Any Other Mothers To Go Through This"
Terry Hoyt moved to Florida three years ago, but, as she has before, she is fighting alongside Gloria and her son's advocates to stop California from taking him back. "Number one, they don't have the money for this," she says. "Number two, he would never make it." Indeed, Johnson is so frail that everyone agrees his body could not withstand the cross-country journey from Illinois to California.
Hoyt, who first met Gloria at Johnson's trial, has felt a kinship with her from the start. "I couldn't help that, because any mother in that position -- she didn't do anything. Even if he had done it, there was something that just told me. … I just felt so bad for her."
Gloria approached Hoyt in the courtroom. "She said, 'I'm really sorry if my son did this. I don't think he is capable of this.' " The two got to know each other little by little. Today, says Gloria "she's like a sister to me."
"It's not just about Montell and Dorianne anymore," says Hoyt, "It's, 'oh my God, we don't want any other mothers to go through this.' "
Victim advocate Susan Murphy Milano is one of Illinois' greatest treasures to those who care about crime victims. Visit her blog regularly! http://www.murphymilanojournal.blogspot.com/
She has covered the work of IllinoisVictims.org on her weekly Tuesday 10 pm Central Time Radio Talk Show and Podcast:
An interactive chat room is available by going to http://www.blogtslkradio.com/justiceinterrupted - You will not be able to chat unless you
register. To listen to a prior show: Go to http://www.justiceinterrupted.blogspot.com , the show will automatically play once on the site.
The family and friends of Cindy Bischof worked hard for a law recently signed by Governor Blagojevich, and championed by bi-partisan legislative leaders, especially Rep. Beth Coulson, that uses GPS tracking technology to keep domestic violence victims safe from their stalkers.
Check out http://www.cindysmemorial.org/: Tragedy inspiring Illinois Victims to positive action.
Current OVC Guest Hosts
Bill Jenkins is the author of What To Do When the Police Leave: A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss, which he wrote after his 16-year-old son was shot and killed during a robbery in 1997. Mr. Jenkins is a consultant for the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center; he is on the international board of directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights; and serves on the board of the National Coalition of Victims in Action. A recognized authority on victims and trauma, he frequently hosts workshops on death notification techniques, as well as various victims’ issues with the National Organization for Victims Assistance; the National Center for Victims of Crime; Compassionate Friends; Fight Crime: Invest in Kids; and Parents of Murdered Children. He has also taught workshops on victim-sensitive death notification as an instructor for the Virginia Institute for Forensic Science and Medicine.
Mr. Jenkins and his wife, Jennifer Bishop, cofounded IllinoisVictims.org, a networking Web site that addresses victims’ rights issues in Illinois, and together they also hold regular victim impact panels with juveniles on probation and other at-risk youth. Mr. Jenkins won the Edith Surgan Victim Activist of the Year award from the National Organization for Victim Assistance in 2006, spoke on the steps of the U.S. Capitol at the Million Mom March, and appeared on Dateline: NBC in 2004.
IllinoisVictims.org is most thankful for the voices of victims of violent crime that are put to work in the service of others. We will feature examples from time to time of victims working in the wake of their traumas to help others.
Denise Reed, mother of slain Chicago honor roll student Starkesia Reed, took her powerful message to Springfield.
Her button read "Our Families Matter More Than Your Big Guns" referring the powerful moneyed lobbyists she was testifying against supporting those who profit off of the deaths of children.
Her testimony in support of a bill that would ban large capacity military-style ammunition clips, such as were used at the Virginia Tech massacre, and that took her daughter's life, was inspiring and moved many listening to tears. The committee she testified before passed the bill out of committee successfully.
Starkesia Reed was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was in her home at 8:15 in the morning, waiting for her school bus, eating an orange. The bullets were fired from an AK-47 down at the corner, 7 houses away. 9 houses were shot up, and the bullets that killed Starkesia went through the wall of her home. Denise Reed is one of the best of Illinois' Victim Voices.
A local Victim and Advocate writes an OpEd that is published in the Chicago Tribune:
Gun violence is an epidemic
Our Response to the Washington Post article against victims rights (below):
I am troubled by the patronizing tone and misinformation in the editorial "Where Victims' Rights Go Wrong" (Barry Boss, Monday, April 23, 2007). I am a murder victims family member, active in victim advocacy, and in the spirit of this national week that we try to pay attention to the needs and concerns of victims, especially one week after the Virginia Tech tragedy that has traumatized the nation, one has to question the wisdom of the message, and the timing of this article. Red flags should go up anytime anyone says "I sympathize with victims . . .BUT . . .".
Further, the author is quite wrong - the right to speak in court (victim impact statements), the right to consult (be told what the prosecution is planning and share their own points of view) and the right to be supported and informed throughout the entire trial is NOT tantamount to being on the prosecution team.
Victims remain some of the most neglected members in our society and the advances in recognition of victims rights do not even come close to placing victims in a position of inappropriate "influence" on the cases being tried.
One need look no farther than the current headlines in Chicago where States Attorney Richard Devine has sought the death penalty in the infamous Brown's Chicken murders in Palatine, despite the fact that the victims families, 5 out of 7 of them, want no death penalty in that case.
And victims families will often want harsher sentences, as well, for the offenders. It is not uncommon that victims will feel that no punishment can be hard enough, because often it can never come close to what they have suffered.
These cases are always tempered by the full and whole judicial process that represents the entire citizenry.
Mr. Boss is a defense attorney who clearly has come to see victims families as the enemy, likely because he has not been properly trained how to understand and react to their trauma.
I have worked in training with Defense Attorneys so that they can learn to understand and not be threatened by victims' trauma. They must learn not to see them as adversaries in the case, but, if the victims so choose, as participants.
It is incredibly important to remember that victims were made participants in the case by the choices of the offender, not by their own choice.
Even the most basic understanding of psychology reveals the deepest links between the well-being of the victims and the fate of the offender. That horrible relationship, created by the offender, has to be handled with the utmost compassion and delicacy and respect.
Victims Rights are Human Rights. We cannot expect the human and constitutional rights of the offenders to be respected in any system that does not also respect the rights of the victims.
Victims need to know what is going on with their case. They need to feel heard. They need support. They need to be able to understand.
And offenders have rights - the right to counsel, trial, due process, all of the constitutional protections.
And if all those things happen, then the judicial system, which does not and should not make decisions based on what are the wishes of the victims families alone, but on what is just for society as a whole, can know that it has helped to heal the injuries done when people choose to do evil things - to hurt each other.
Where Victims' Rights Go Wrong
Washington Post By Barry Boss
Monday, April 23, 2007; A17
Since 1981, the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime has dedicated a week in April to recognizing crime victims' rights. The week -- this year's observance began yesterday -- is usually marked by rallies, candlelight vigils and other activities intended to promote victims' rights and to honor crime victims and those who work on their behalf.
Victims deserve the recognition that this week provides, and they deserve sympathy and compensation for their losses. But I am increasingly concerned about what I believe they do not deserve, which is the right to serve as de facto prosecutors, a practice that is quietly insinuating itself into the legal system.
Our desire to increase victims' rights is closely related to our national obsession with being "tough on crime." While this mantra makes for good political rhetoric, it often leads to illogical and irrational criminal justice policies. Being "tough on crime" has led to harsh mandatory minimum sentences in federal drug cases that have disproportionately punished minorities. It has resulted in first-time offenders serving life sentences even though their crimes involved no weapon and resulted in no physical injuries; in 6-year-olds being arrested for tantrums at school; and, worst of all, in innocent people on death row.
Courts have increasingly become more cognizant of the rights of victims. In 1996, restitution became mandatory for a variety of federal crimes. In 2002, Congress provided the victims of violent crimes and sexual abuse the right to speak at a defendant's sentencing, even though courts already had latitude in any kind of case to permit victims to speak at sentencing or to receive information from victims before sentences were imposed. And last year, the issue reached the Supreme Court in a murder case in which the victim's supporters had attended the trial wearing buttons that displayed a picture of the victim (the court avoided addressing whether such conduct is prejudicial)
The latest manifestation of our "tough on crime" policy comes in the proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which will implement the 2004 Crime Victims' Rights Act. One U.S. district judge ruled that the statute renders victims "independent participant[
Under the act, victims have the right to be heard in court on questions of bond, plea agreements and sentencing, and they have the right to confer with prosecutors about a case. If victims are unhappy with how a prosecutor or trial court has treated them, they are permitted to seek relief in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the appellate court must rule on their application within 72 hours (an unprecedented remedy).
Thus, under the act, victims at a minimum become a member of the prosecution team and, indeed, have significant leverage over the professional prosecutors. The president and many in Congress support an amendment for crime victims' rights that would incorporate several of these points into the Constitution.
While we may support the notion that victims' rights should be at least as strong as those of defendants, within the context of the criminal justice system these rights are mutually exclusive. Any rights provided to the victim must come at the expense of the rights provided to a defendant. Indeed, providing the victim with a role in the prosecution assumes a crime has been committed, despite the bedrock constitutional proposition that the accused is presumed innocent.
When we turn victims into members of the prosecution team, we distort a process, so carefully constructed more than 200 years ago, that eschewed vigilante justice or prosecution for personal ends in favor of prosecution by the sovereign with significant rights afforded to the accused. We expect prosecutors to make decisions about whom to prosecute and what types of sentences to seek based on myriad considerations, including, but far from limited to, the interests of victims. Where victims play a controlling role in the prosecution, the consideration of those factors no longer focuses on what is best for society but rather on what victims need or want as "justice."
I sympathize with individuals victimized by criminals. I understand their anger, outrage and desire for vengeance, particularly when faced with the kind of malevolence displayed last week at Virginia Tech. Securing assistance and compensation for victims is an unquestionable priority, and we need to promote healing to the greatest extent possible.
But the criminal justice system cannot focus on the victim; rather, it must follow its rich tradition of protecting society as a whole, ensuring that justice is achieved in accordance with the Constitution. As we appropriately focus on improving the plight of crime victims this week, let's not forget about the plight of the falsely accused or of the criminal justice system itself.
The writer, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington, is a former assistant federal public defender and former co-chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's Practitioners' Advisory Group
Below are some letters from victims' family members telling their stories and lending their encouragement to our efforts in fighting for victims in Illinois:
OUR LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
Rex Huppke's otherwise excellent article (Jan 26, "A Father Re-Lives Nightmare")about the dangers of early release of murderers assured Illinoisans that a similar parole of killers couldn't happen here. In fact, an effort to reinstate parole for killers is actually now well underway in Illinois. A state legislative committee was studying such a possibility this year. Only victims' outcry removed that option from the study. Now parole advocates, undaunted, are launching a campaign to go directly to the legislature. Like the father depicted in the story, Illinois victims families are now having to relive their trauma as they fight this misguided effort that could easily result in the same disastrous consequences.
Gerri Flynn, Rockford
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Northfield
A letter from a murdered heroic law enforcement officers about her struggles with the parole process:
I was filled with so much information yesterday I really do not know where to
start. So here is the petition I have been having signed number
1. I will scan
some of the petitions from the Sheriff and other Government Officials on Monday.
ED NOTE: Jennifer and her family mounted a successful challenge to the release of Mr. Bacino in 2007. They are now preparing for the 2008 hearing after only a few months respite from this battle.
Jennifer, Hi, my name is Donna Marquez. I am with the IL Chapter of COPS, and the Chicago Police Gold Star Families. My brother was serving a warrant on March 18, 2002, He was shot 4 times by a 77 year old sick man. He died a few hours into surgery. Our lives have been forever changed by this horrible tragedy. I recently became the President of the Gold Star Families of CPD, please let me know what we can do to assist you. Thank you.
I am Jennifer S's mom, Terry. We look forward to rejoicing where this will take us, because we have all been put into this forum for a better cause. We will follow your advise and I am so proud of the groundwork that Jennifer has already covered with the advise you have provided her with besides her own gut instincts.
She is very determined, and this time Mike's voice, along with ours, and yours will be heard for all the victims we need to represent. I am so grateful you have already had a voice before the General Assembly.
I regret that my daughters, who were toddlers at the time, have to devote time away from their families, to fight for OUR rights. No amount of good citizenship, law abiding perfectionism will EARN any of US an early "EARNED RELEASE."
You and my daughter have my undivided attention and I will devote all the time you need from me for this cause. All our loved ones who experienced their last breath at the hand of these murderers will be heard through our voices.
Thank you and Bless you,
Terry L. (Mayborne) R
My father, Alvin B Bell, was robbed and brutally murder on June 21,
1989 by a neighborhood friend, Ernest Sims. Sims was convicted and sentenced
to the Illinois Correctional Center in Centralia for a measly 36 years. To
my disbelief and heartache he is being released on March29, 2007 after only
serving 18 years. I am appalled that they would do this without any input
from us, the family. I have started to relive every moment of that time with
pain and anger. It took me 10 years to get the images of my father that
night out of my head. It's amazing how I remember it so vividly like it was
yesterday, the blood. I always thought we would be notified regarding the
parole hearing and as a family could stop it or at least try to, for my
father's sake. How could they take that from us? The sad part about this is
that the parole board didn't notify us of Sims release. The Illinois State's
Attorney's Office Victim-Witness Assistance looked through the file of the
case and notified us. To my disgust, they informed me that due to new
legislation victims and the family of the victims no longer have the right
to speak out at the parole hearings for ourselves or our loved ones lost by
these senseless acts. I have only 1 month to try and protest this for my
father's sake, I owe him that. This cold-hearted murderer will be released
at the age of 39, still a young man, to live, have a family, grow old and
enjoy his grandchildren. My father was entitled to that also and no one had
the right to take it away, no one but God. I always consoled myself with the
thought that he would be a broken-down old man when he got out. I don't have
I have been reading the history of HJR80 and truly appreciate your insight, strength and guidance that you have offered to other victims. Right now our emotions are peaking, but we keep reminding ourselves to stay with the facts you have presented us with and document our notifications and conversations with PRB. Besides my husband being murdered, I have a current co-worker who was shot three times in the face (a female police officer) and left for dead. Several major surgery's, court, emotions, etc. has left her with a very strong faith. My fear is she firmly believes her perpetrator will never step out of prison. We also work with another officers family (Rockford Police officer Kevin Rice) who was killed by a man who had just been released from prison for killing someone else. It breaks my heart to think that her young children may someday face what my Jennifer (Sutkay) is facing. It is just WRONG!! My other daughter, Jen's older sister is currently in emotional turmoil. The effects are just now reaching her 30 years later. She is a mess. When she saw her father's murderer on video, her grief was so raw, you would have thought she had just received word of her father's death. We do have her in counseling, at our expense, not the state's. Although, Bacino brags about the counseling he can receive in prison for whatever it is he needs!! I take some responsibility for not seeking grief counseling sooner for them to help process this all, but then it was not offered or heard of, and I truly believed in our court system with a jury and Judge that I would NEVER have to worry about this issue again.
I am only sharing thoughts with you so you will see your ground work has been set forth for so many others and the experience in your grief and determination to direct your frustration in a more productive manner will worth every effort and tear. You truly have our support and we will work with the other IllinoisVictims.org families to bring the awareness to a broader population.