Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Victims ask for rights clause


Area mom speaks to U.S. House panel

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

[IMAGE] Sharon Nolan puts away a picture of her murdered daughter after testifying before a House subcommittee.
(Gannett News Service photo)
| ZOOM |
WASHINGTON - From the moment her daughter Shannon was killed two years ago, Sharon Nolan of Milford felt re-victimized by the same criminal justice system that caught, tried and convicted her daughter's killer.

When she first called the police about her missing, pregnant 24-year-old daughter, they told her they couldn't do anything for 24 to 48 hours. They suggested her daughter had walked away or committed suicide, Nolan said.

After her daughter's husband was arrested in connection with the homicide, Sharon and her husband, L.C., kept showing up for court dates that had been canceled. They were not allowed in for jury selection.

When the trial started, she and her husband were barred from the courtroom as possible witnesses, forced to wait in the hall.

A court employee even told them they had to leave the hallway because they were making the defendant uncomfortable when he walked past them. (They refused.)

And, in a final insult, they had to pay $1,500 for a transcript of the trial from which they were barred.

"We did nothing wrong. We do not deserve the life sentence of victimization," Nolan told the House constitution subcommittee on Tuesday. "We were victimized every day."

She said the solution is a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of crime victims, a proposal authored by Rep. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati. The Westwood Republican chairs the House subcommittee and invited Nolan to testify.

"Currently, the U.S. Constitution is completely silent on victims' rights while it speaks volumes about the rights of the accused," he said.

Chabot said the Constitution has become a "trump card" for defendants.

John Broe of Carthage is now in prison, convicted of beating to death his wife, Shannon Nolan-Broe, and her unborn daughter, Alexandra Jordan.

According to court records, Shannon had accused her husband of cheating with an 18-year-old woman who also was pregnant with his child.

Ohio, like 32 other states, has victims' rights amendments.

But judges often ignore them or defendants' rights outweigh them, said Chabot, Nolan and other legal experts.

The only way to fully protect victims is to enshrine their rights in the Constitution, they said.

Opponents say that would be a possibly dangerous overreaction.

The American Civil Liberties Union warned that it could mean innocent people get sent to jail, as juries are swayed by victims' emotions.

It even could mean that some criminals go free. For example, if victims in the Oklahoma City bombing had been able to object to the leniency given defendant Michael Fortier, he might not have testified as a witness against Timothy McVeigh.

The top Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, accused Chabot and other House Republicans of being "slap-happy" when it comes to amending the Constitution, which has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was added.

He said a better solution would be more money for prosecutors, counseling, or financial help for crime victims.

The victims' rights amendment would give victims the right to be notified of any public proceeding involving the crime and the right to testify at sentencing and parole hearings.

A National Institute of Justice study found that only 60 percent of victims are notified when defendants are sentenced and only 40 percent are notified of any pretrial release. Minorities were least likely to be notified.

A Reagan administration task force in 1982 first proposed the amendment. Chabot first introduced it in 1999. Despite President Bush's support, it has not come up for a vote, and Chabot said no subcommittee vote has been scheduled.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the amendment earlier this month.

"The time for voting has come," said Steven Twist, general counsel for the National Victims Constitutional Amendment Project.

"We support this amendment in the name of all victims who scream without sound," Nolan said, flanked by a photo of her daughter, a sonogram of her granddaughter, and two tiny pink shoes. "Please don't re-victimize them again by silencing us."

E-mail cweiser@gns.gannett.com

Amendment facts

Congress is considering adding a victims' rights amendment to the Constitution.

The amendment

The text of the proposed victims rights amendment to the constitution:

"The rights of victims of violent crime, being capable of protection without denying the constitutional rights of those accused of victimizing them, are hereby established and shall not be denied by any State or the United States and may be restricted only as provided in this article.

"A victim of violent crime shall have the right to reasonable and timely notice of any public proceeding involving the crime and of any release or escape of the accused; the rights not to be excluded from such public proceeding and reasonably to be heard at public release, plea, sentencing, reprieve, and pardon proceedings; and the right to adjudicative decisions that duly consider the victim's safety, interest in avoiding unreasonable delay, and just and timely claims to restitution from the offender. These rights shall not be restricted except when and to the degree dictated by a substantial interest in public safety or the administration of criminal justice, or by compelling necessity.

"Nothing in this article shall be construed to provide grounds for a new trial or to authorize any claim for damages. Only the victim or the victim's lawful representative may assert the rights established by this article, and no person accused of the crime may obtain any form of relief hereunder."

About amendments

Some key facts on constitutional amendments:

 The Constitution is the nation's ultimate law. It controls what Congress, the president and the Supreme Court can do.

 An amendment is a change or addition to the Constitution. Since the Constitution was approved in 1788, it has been amended 27 times. The first 10 amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.

 Thousands of amendments have been proposed. Dozens were proposed in the last session of Congress alone, including ones to outlaw flag burning, and establish English as the nation's official language.

 Amending the Constitution is difficult. It takes a two-thirds vote of the House, a two-thirds vote of the Senate, and then three-quarters (38) of all state legislatures. Presidents have no legal say over amendments.

Most recent amendments

1992: Mandating that any pay raises Congress approves not take effect until after the next election.

1971: Giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.




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