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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

Victim's Rights

Posted Friday, July 25, 2008, at 4:36 PM

Should a homicide victim's rights end at the moment of death?

Far too often it seems, BY LAW, those rights just disappear when and if someone is arrested, charged with the crime and eventually goes to trial.

I agree defendants should have rights, but not to the extent victims rights are practically ignored.

For many years, too many actually, I took all crime scene photographs in Shelbyville and Bedford County. I knew from being in such close proximity to law enforcement officers the merits of cases, particualy homicide cases.

What actually took place at homicide scenes and what is allowed, again BY Law, to go before a a jury can be very different.

It's easy to blame local officials for such trials, but that isn't always the case at all. The U.S. Supreme Court, rulings by U.S. District Courts of Appeal and laws enacted by the State Of Tennessee are often the reason for trials to go down like a bad grammar school play.

I've always found it difficult to understand how our courts must stick strictly to specificity of charges against a defendant in a given case and, unless the defense opens the door, past criminal activity can't go before a jury.

Yet aometimes punishment can be modified if a defendant is judged to be, as an example, a 30 percent offender. I believe if a defendant is found guilty of a crime he or she is and should be a 100 percent offender and should be judged by the crime in question, not whether he or she may have been a good boy or girl in the past.

What are your thoughts of victim's rights? Are those rights too often seemingly ignored, only a minor factor or taken in proper perspective?

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I think this is where we need to have wise judges to know just how the law should be applied and intelligent counsel on both sides to plead their cases.

The investigators are supposed to discover the truth then let others determine what should be done with it.

Our system is supposed to be based on two principles.

One is "innocent until proven guilty".

The other assumes that people can be rehabilitated and returned to society as productive members.

Reality can be a bit different.

We can choose the charges and the sentence based on how we perceive the reality.

Although it would seem only fair to look at the here and now in determining the disposition of a case,the past can be an indicator of the future.

A person who comes before the court on an assault charge is likely to be viewed differently if he or she is mentally ill,was defending a loved one,etc. and was known to be a good-natured,law-abiding individual as opposed to having a record of "getting wasted" every week and being involved in frequent,varied altercations.

In the former case,the crime might be an aberration that would never be repeated even without treatment or punishment.

In the latter,the system might have strong evidence that all the jail time and therapy and anger management in the world would not make the perpetrator any safer or saner than the last dozen attempts to rehabilitate him.

Perhaps,the person convicted is too physically impaired to be responsible for his own actions.

Perhaps,he needs different helps than the person in the next cell.

Maybe,he has no interest in accepting his role in his misfortunes and refuses to comply with anything that would equip him for living in society as a free person.

The nature of the crime,the character of the person arrested,the level of risk they pose to others and the liklihood that they'll reoffend should be taken into consideration.

As for the victim,as much as we might want revenge or closure,those cannot be the first or only criteria.

We can look at individual cases and determine,for instance,that someone who attacked a cop would pose a greater risk to society than someone who harmed an ordinary person.

We can decide that criminals who target vulnerable populations such as children or the disabled have already identified themselves as predators.

The serial killer,terrorist or perpetrator of a hate crime has added an extra level of danger to his actions.

If we judge him as worse because he has forged a deliberate and chronic pattern of villainy (and the periods between crimes were the exception rather than the rule),then we might do well to be more lenient with the person who has to step out of character to hurt himself or others.

There don't seem to be easy answers.

We can't afford to seem arbitrary,too quick to condemn or too quick to let offenses slide or escalate.

We don't need a patchwork system that allows someone in one area to get a more severe punishment for scratching a fender,bouncing a check or breaking curfew than a person in another place might get for arson or second degree murder.

Even punitive damages and restitution cannot restore lost life,lost health,lost time or lost faith.

We cannot guarantee the victims or the accused that they will put the past behind them and have a whole and positive life in the future.

About all we can hope for is an acknowledgement of the indignities and suffering experienced by the victims and an assurance that everything possible will be done to put their lives in the best possible order and see that the persons responsible for their pain will face up to what they have done and never violate the social contract again.

If society perceives that our institutions cannot provide safety and justice,then its members will act outside the law to do what they please or what seems fit.

Our system may not be perfect but it has a better chance of evolving into something that meets our best interests than if individuals make it up as they go along.

-- Posted by quantumcat on Sat, Jul 26, 2008, at 7:16 AM

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Bo Melson is a retired sports and police beat editor of the Times-Gazette. He passed away November 15, 2014, at age 81.
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