Tuesday, January 28, 2014

When victims' families defend defendants against capital punishment

In When Victims Speak Up in Court--in Defense of the Criminals, The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen writes about the difficulties faced by prosecutors and judges when victims--or victims' families--defend defendants against the state's pursuit of certain punishments. In particular, Cohen examines the ongoing Colorado murder case in Colorado v. Montour in which the victim's family opposed the death penalty for the Lethal-injection1defendant. Cohen explains:

The last time [the defendant] faced trial for [the victim's] death, the victim's family supported the death penalty as an option. Not this time. This time, having educated themselves about capital punishment, and better understanding the nature of [the defendant's] mental illness at the time of [the victim's] death, the [the victim's family] have been vocally, stridently, ceaselessly against the imposition of death in this case. Earlier this month, for example, as potential jurors in the...case were lined up outside the courthouse waiting to learn about the case for which they were summoned, the [victim's family] picketed the line and pleaded with [the prosecutor] to spare their son's killer.


Episodes like this -- and the media attention they inevitably generated -- prompted....the prosecutor in the Montour case[] to remove the family  from his preliminary list of witnesses to be called during the sentencing of the case. And that removal, in turn, has prompted [the defense] attorneys to ask the trial judge in the case to allow the [victim's family] to testify during sentencing. That prompted an aggressive response from [the prosecutor], arguing that Colorado's victims' rights laws don't apply to "mitigating" factors during sentencing but only to "aggravating factors." And that is where we stand today.

Capital punishment, of course, likely will subsume much of this controversy (perhaps at the expense of other much needed sentencing reforms), especially as questions as to its propriety have re-emerged  nationally after the shameful Ohio execution that lasted 26 minutes. The executed man's family now is suing the state for its alleged violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment." Meanwhile, several state senators have called for the reinstatement of firing squads in executions. Given these developments, Cohen's article is a particularly compelling read. It begins:

One of the most profound changes in criminal justice over the past 40 years has been the rise of the victims' lobby. Essentially shut out of the core of the process until the 1970s, the victims' rights movement today can cite legislation from sea to sea, chapter and verse under both federal and state laws, that broadens the rights of victims to participate in the trials of those accused of harming them or their families. The Department of Justice's 2012 "Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance," for example, totals 66 pages and barely scratches the surface of what similar state guidelines reveal.


The immutable trio that once existed in criminal cases— judge, prosecutor, and defendant—now almost always resembles a quartet. Victims have a voice—and they use it. All 50 states now allow some form of "victim impact statement" at sentencing. Because such statements are often so compelling to jurors, defense attorneys frequently seek ways to blunt their impact. But these efforts almost always fail. Even judges who are sympathetic to the constitutional rights of defendants, who fret about the prejudicial impact of victim testimony, say they are bound by legislative declarations broadening the scope of victim participation in criminal cases.


But a pending Colorado case raises a profound question that few judges (or prosecutors or jurors) ever have to confront: What happens when the victims of violent crime seek to speak out on behalf of the defendant and not the state? What happens when the family member of a murder victim seeks leave to beg jurors at sentencing to spare the life of the man who killed their son? What responsibility does the prosecutor have in that case? What obligations do the courts have? Do victims' rights sound only when they favor the government and the harshest sentence, or do they sound as well when they cry out for mercy?


So far, the prosecutor in the case, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, has answered those questions clearly: He wants to block one couple's efforts to speak out against the death penalty for the man who murdered their child. Brauchler has filed a motion in a pending case seeking to bar Bob and Lola Autobee from participating in the sentencing phase of the trial of Edward Montour, their son's killer. The law only guarantees the rights of victims to "discuss the harm that resulted from the crime," Brauchler argues. But I haven't been able to find a single victims' right advocate who believes that's true.

CRL&P related posts:


Collateral Consequences, Prisons and Prisoners, Theories of Punishment | Permalink