June 13, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Last time we began our discussion of victim impact statements — often the only chance for crime victims to be present at the sentencing and explain how their lives have been affected.
What if you or someone you know has been a victim, want the court know how this incident has affected you, but you’re just not the greatest writer or public speaker?
“Don’t be discouraged,” Kings County Deputy District Attorney Kathy Ciuffini told me, “there’s help you can expect in putting that statement together, covering important details of what being a victim of this crime has done to you and your family. It is a story that only victims can tell.”
“Include details of physical injuries, long-lasting disabilities, the emotional impact on your life, financial costs, and where a death resulted, it is so important to talk about that person, the life they led, and how their loss has affected so many people.”
Kathy added something which I heard from every defense attorney and prosecutor I spoke with, both in California and in other states:
“Judges place a great deal of emphasis on these statements. No matter how many criminal cases a judge hears, still, having the victims in court, listening to what this horrible event did to them, well, it has the power to alter what the court had initially told the lawyers what the sentence would be.”
Having the right to make a victim impact statement requires knowing what should not be said.
“It is important to realize that a poorly prepared or delivered statement can have a very different result from what was intended,” Eureka based defense attorney Greg Rael stressed when we spoke recently.
He added, “It can backfire.”
“In cases where victims are so angry that they appear irrational, or their sense of reason is overwhelmed by emotion, I have seen judges have great doubts about the entire case — even about the defendant’s guilt — rejecting plea bargains, sending the case back for trial or further discussions with the D.A.”
However, the Kings County Deputy DA. feels that the overall benefit to the victims far outweighs any damage which might be done to the case itself.
“Even the most dysfunctional, angry victim should not be discouraged from making a statement, especially if it is the mother of a child who was molested,” she strongly maintains.
“Experience has proven it is so important that mom tells the court what she feels should happen to the defendant. It is part of the healing process, allowing her and perhaps other family members to say to the defendant what they want that person to hear. It is therapeutic, it’s closure for them.”
There was general agreement among the prosecution and defense attorneys I spoke with that it’s not a good idea to bring young victims into court at the time of sentencing. Deputy D.A. Ciufinni explained why:
“I would not encourage the family of a very young molest victim to bring the child to court. It is traumatic enough for a child to be in a courtroom as this isn’t an everyday experience. When children see the person who molested them, they are going to relive that trauma.”
“If it was a family member who molested them, now here is the child in court, facing family members from both sides. What will that poor little victim conclude? The answer is clear. My uncle, or brother, or whoever it might be, is trouble because of me.”
In researching this story, what impressed me most of all in my discussions with D.A.’s and defense counsel was their shared belief in just how important it is for victims to be aware of their right to stand up and make their feelings known.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.