By Mai Fernandez
By Mai Fernandez
Right now, the nation is rightly focused on the victims’ families. News reports have paid tribute to the six courageous teachers who died trying to save the children in their care. We have also seen touching accounts of the twenty young children who tragically lost their lives. Such attention to the victims, rare in so many crimes, sheds a spotlight on the impact of all homicides.
By Mai Fernandez
Declining crime rates over the past few decades have tempted us to forget how many individuals, families, and communities suffer the impact of crime every year. Yet the newly released Criminal Victimization 2011 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is a wakeup call.
By Mai Fernandez
Everybody knows that the accused have rights under our legal system. But what rights do crime victims have? And what if their rights are not enforced?
By Robin L. Barton
On Dec. 3, 2008, Laura Garza, a 25-year-old aspiring dancer, left a Manhattan night club with Michael Mele, a 26-year-old registered sex offender, and disappeared...
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States at any given time. If you went solely by what you read in the media, you’d probably assume that most of these cases involve pretty white women.
By Mai Fernandez
Did you know that children are more likely...
By Laura Amico
A prosecutor once told me of D.C.’s...
By Mai Fernandez
Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without another news story about a wrongly convicted inmate being freed as a result of DNA testing. According to the Innocence Project, 266 people have been exonerated in U.S. history. The ordeals of these exonerees are heartbreaking.
But what about the victims in these cases? We have to start thinking about society’s responsibilities to them.
Victims commonly react with shock to the news of exoneration. One Texas victim told us she was “confused, angry, and terrified” when she learned the wrong man had been convicted of raping her 20 years ago. “How could this happen?” she asked.
This victim lapsed into a depression, fearing that the wrongly convicted man would kill her, as he had threatened to do when he was tried. “Every day seemed like a struggle just to survive,” she said. “Only this time, you have to deal with the guilt that you helped put the wrong man in prison.”
Working with such victims creates enormous challenges for prosecutors and advocates. Some victims have moved, married, had children, and never told their loved ones about their victimization. Learning about an exoneration may cause victims to feel unsafe and deeply resentful of the criminal justice system that failed them. Some victims even tell authorities never to contact them again about their case.
Chris Jenkins, an advocate in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, recommends creating a carefully considered protocol for contacting and supporting victims.
District Attorneys’ offices must decide when to contact the victim. Should it be when the defendant requests the test? When the state agrees to allow the test? When the test establishes the guilt or innocence of the convicted individual? On the one hand, why alarm the victim about the test request because the test may later confirm the defendant’s guilt? But the victim may find out through an automated victim notification system like Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE), that the offender has been moved to another location for the test. For that reason, prosecutors and victim advocates may want to consider contacting these victims before they are notified to explain why the offender is being moved.
Prosecutors and advocates must be prepared to answer victims’ questions about the law and forensic DNA. Victims usually want to understand the process of DNA testing and what happens after an exoneration occurs. They want to know whether the investigation will be reopened and what are the chances—often after many years—of apprehending and convicting the real offender.
In sexual assault cases where the statute of limitations on prosecuting the crime has been reached, victims must deal with the state’s inability to prosecute the real offender, even if the individual is identified and apprehended. The sense of injustice such victims feel can be overwhelming.
When offenders apply for exoneration, victims need to know their options and rights. First, they need to understand they can refuse to be involved with the case. They also need to know their notification rights and what victim services are available after notification and testing.
Throughout the testing process, authorities must strive to protect victims’ privacy. In one Dallas case described by Chris Jenkins, the police needed a DNA sample from a victim, but the victim did not want her family or her employer to know about the case. So a detective flew to the city where the victim lived and met her at the security office of her local airport. The District Attorney’s office obtained what was needed, while still protecting the victim’s privacy.
Finally, authorities should treat victims in exoneration cases as the victims of a newly committed crime, regardless of whether the crime can be prosecuted. These victims need support, advocacy, and full access to their rights. They may need victim compensation for counseling to help them cope with the psychological trauma exoneration (and renewed fear of the real offender) may cause.
They should not have to face these challenges by themselves.
Because exonerations are likely to continue or perhaps increase in the future, society must redouble its efforts to support the victims of these crimes. Justice requires no less.
Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. Its online DNA Resource Center includes interviews with victims and forensic experts, a Webinar series, news articles, and conference presentations on forensic DNA also offers a range of information on forensic DNA for victims, victim service providers, and the public. Among the interviews is a conversation with Debbie Jones, a Texas victim advocate and the victim in a Texas exoneration case.
By Robin L. Barton
When Jared Loughner was arrested after opening fire in a Tucson strip mall on Jan. 8, his life became an open book subject to the scrutiny of the media and the general public. In an effort to learn more about the man responsible for this tragedy, the media descended upon his parents. They kept silent for several days, but eventually issued a brief statement saying in part, “We ask the media to respect our privacy.” Should the media honor this request?
In the eyes of the criminal justice system, an individual arrested for a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Yet in the eyes of the media, the opposite is often the case. And although the legal system is restricted by the safeguards in place to protect a defendant’s privacy, journalists aren’t so hampered and generally feel free to dig into every aspect of the defendant’s life. There’s a strong case to be made that anything and everything about a defendant is fair game. But it’s not necessarily appropriate for journalists to turn the lives of the defendant’s family—his parents, spouse, siblings, children—upside down.
When the media turns its attention to a defendant’s family, this scrutiny can cost the family its privacy. According to reports, Loughner’s parents, Randy and Amy, have always been very private people. Their neighbors seem to know very little about them, describing them as “antisocial.”
After the shooting, reporters gathered on the Loughners’ street and in front of their house. At one point, an overzealous photographer jumped their back fence to get a picture of what appeared to be a skull and candles, forcing Randy Loughner to call the police. Otherwise, the Loughners have stayed in seclusion.
No one understands more about the loss of privacy that the Loughners are experiencing than Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, who was responsible for the Columbine shootings with Eric Harris. In an article Klebold wrote for O magazine in 2009, she describes the immediate aftermath: “Helicopters began circling overhead to capture a killer’s family on film. Cars lined the road and onlookers gawked to get a better view.”
The media firestorm that can be result from a high profile case can itself cause a tragedy. For example, the loss of privacy for Bernie Madoff’s family in the wake of his arrest and guilty plea coupled with the subsequent civil lawsuits and negative publicity may have driven Madoff’s son Mark to suicide. But he and his brother were apparently under investigation for their role in their dad’s Ponzi scheme. So perhaps Mark wasn’t an innocent bystander.
Going hand in hand with the loss of privacy is the blame inevitably heaped on a defendant’s family by the media. Susan Klebold said that although she felt like another victim of the tragedy, the rest of the community didn’t see it that way. In fact, according to a newspaper survey taken in the wake of Columbine, 83% of respondents blamed the shooters’ parents.
The jury is still out on Loughner’s parents. But blame is already beginning to fly in their direction. For example, reports suggest that there were warning signs about their son’s mental state that they ignored. Of course, it appears that Loughner’s friends and teachers as well as members of law enforcement may also have missed opportunities to help this troubled young man.
In the coming months, we’ll likely learn more about Loughner’s life and the role his upbringing played in his actions on Jan. 8. Did the Loughners raise a monster and so “deserve” all this scrutiny and criticism? Or are they simply victims who weren’t trained to recognize the possible signs of a serious mental disorder and were unprepared to handle a son with one?
It’s certainly appropriate for the media to ask these questions and explore the answers. But until all the evidence is in, the media would do well to reserve judgment on Loughner’s parents and try to respect their plea for privacy in what they’ve described as “a very difficult time.” After all, as Shakespeare said in The Tempest—and Columbine shooter Eric Harris wrote in his day planner on Mother’s Day—“Good wombs have borne bad sons.”
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. She worked in the trial division, Serious Offender Unit in the Office of Special Narcotics and Rackets Bureau, where she developed and supervised investigations that targeted high-level narcotics trafficking, gambling and racketeering in the construction industry and related labor unions.
TCR at a Glance
new & notable June 19, 2013
A new report — called for by President Barack Obama in response to the Newtown rampage — examines efforts to develop new gun ...
new & notable June 18, 2013
Law enforcement needs to resolve the long-running dispute between supporters of evidence-based policing and practitioners of experiential...
June 17, 2013
U.S. cops are increasingly using micro cameras to record their daily activities—and defend themselves, if necessary, against charge...
new & notable June 14, 2013
Intimate partner violence found to be leading cause worldwide of non fatal injuries to women, according to an international study of orth...
new & notable June 13, 2013
Nearly half of youths in containment experience theft and almost a third are threatened or beaten, according to the Office of Juvenile Ju...
new & notable June 12, 2013
In the year after the Rockefeller drug laws were repealed, the rate of felony offenders sent to drug treatment rose sharply, reports the ...
June 11, 2013
A few states—such as New York—are expanding orders of civil protection and establishing special courts for teens at risk from...