Tuesday, April 1, 2008
A victim impact statement is a written or verbal statement made as part of the judicial legal process, which allows a victim of crime or his/her family the opportunity to provide either live or videotaped statements during the sentencing of their assailant or at subsequent parole hearings. The first victim impact statement was introduced into an American court in Fresno, California in 1976. Ireland began allowing for their introduction into evidence in 1993. There are strong arguments both for and against their admission into evidence, with proponents claiming that they aid in the emotional recovery of the victim and/or his family and opponents claiming that they make jurors decide cases based upon emotion rather than reason. Based upon these disparate arguments, a judge may use his discretion in deciding to admit or exclude victim impact statements based upon the facts and circumstances of any particular case.
If the group Support After Homicide (SAC) gets its way, however, the admission of such statements will be mandatory in Irish courts in all murder cases. One of their arguments is that last year 84 people were murdered in Ireland, the highest record ever. SAH chair Ann Meade added that allowing such statements is uniquely important to the families of homicide victims because "[m]urder is a heinous crime and exacts a heavy toll from the families and friends of the victim....Whilst families may be the subject of universal sympathy, the response from society does not always recognise their needs or meet them very well....Full custodial sentences for murder are not being served, and many families feel that offenders are released after a few years." Meade added that grief and anger are expressed at clinically high levels as families try to come to terms with losing a loved one through violence, while progressing through the investigative and criminal justice process.
The recommendation that victim impact statements be mandatorily admitted in murder cases was contained in a report -- Emotional Effects and Subsequent Needs of Families Bereaved by Homicide in Ireland -- which also recommended that
-Any rules/guidelines relating to what may be presented in a Victim Impact Statement, should be made clear to the family by a member of the legal profession;
-Families should be informed by the prosecution team of the potential future utilisation of their Victim Impact Statement; and
-Families should be offered the opportunity to take the stand at the inquest for a Victim Impact Statement.
I'm not sure whether I agree with SAC, but I do want to note that its position seems directly contrary to the position of American courts, which until somewhat recently had held that victim impact statements were inadmissible at the sentencing phase of capital murder trials. In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 508-09 (1987), the Supreme Court held that the admission of a victim impact statement at the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial violated the Eighth Amendment because "the formal presentation of this information by the State c[ould] serve no other purpose than to inflame the jury and divert it from deciding the case on the relevant evidence concerning the crime and the defendant." And while the Supreme Court later reversed this opinon in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), it still made clear that it was uniquely concerned about the Eighth Amendment rights of criminal defendant facing capital murder charges.