October 06, 2002
Victims' rights and wrongs

The cover story in this week's Houston Press is on the schism in the victims' rights movement. One of the main players is Houston-based Justice for All, led by Dianne Clements. JFA is as tuff-on-crime as they come, and they brook no dissent. The following occurs at a National Organization of Victim Assistance conference, during a workshop held by a group called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR):

The session was called "Healing the Wounds of Murder," and most of the audience seemed attentive. However, workshop hosts noticed a middle-aged woman who took a back-row seat in a far corner.

They described her as if she were a sullen student defying a teacher, facing sideways in her chair, affecting an air of disinterest. As the workshop began, she ate ice from a cup, crunching loudly enough to be heard by all 40 or so in the room.

The woman was Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victims' rights group Justice For All. She soon began interrupting the speakers. According to some attendees, these exchanges followed:

[Renny] Cushing asked Clements to hold her questions until after the presentation. She refused, demanding answers.

"I want you to tell us," Clements angrily insisted, "what are you? Are you an abolitionist [anti-death penalty] group or a victim support group?"

"We're both," replied [Jennifer] Bishop.

That answer was unacceptable to Clements. She repeated her line of questioning, then stunned listeners when she told Cushing and Bishop, "You're really a bunch of abolitionists who just happened to have family members killed."

As the article notes, Cushing's father was murdered in 1988. Bishop's pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered in 1990.

The story goes on to relate the problems that the victims' rights movement is having now that it has accomplished most of its goals. Those of who who have felt that the civil rights movement is in danger of becoming irrelevant as its leaders do silly things like complain about the movie Barbershop may take note of the similarities.

Personally, if JFA and its hardcore supporters fall by the wayside, I won't be the least bit unhappy. I've written before about how focusing exclusively on punishment is a poor way to reduce crime, but as long as JFA is a sacred cow we'll never start to think critically about what policies are truly the best.

It's also amazing how the politics of victimhood can twist seemingly simple things. Take this example:

MVFR believes there is discrimination against victims who do not agree with prosecutors' goals, especially when it comes to the death penalty. They point to a 1999 Nebraska court ruling that seems to defy basic definitions.

Nebraska law says that a victim will be granted an opportunity to appear before the parole board. But when a Nebraska victim's family asked to appear in support of clemency, the board said no.

The case went to Nebraska's highest court, which reached this conclusion: Victims who testify for the defendant are not legally victims. MVFR argues that truncated versions of that attitude prevail in criminal justice offices all over the nation. In arguing that, the group points to one prominent case in Houston this year: the murder trial of Andrea Yates. Even though his five children were drowned by his wife, husband Rusty Yates was not really treated like a victim.

Say what you want about Rusty Yates (and I largely agree with Ginger here), until such time as he's arrested for having had some role in the death of his kids, he's a victim of this crime. He's loathsome and unsympathetic, but he's still a human being who lost his wife and kids in a horrible way. Assigning second-class status to him or any other crime victim who doesn't share the state's bloodlust is appalling.

JFA's devotion to the death penalty is in itself nearly enough to change my mind on the subject:

University of Houston law professor David Dow sees the hard-line execution position as a major problem with Justice For All. Dow is a director of the Innocence Project in Texas, a volunteer group that investigates convicts' claims of innocence.

JFA, says Dow, is "unwilling to be critical of the police or prosecutors, even in cases where they deserve to be criticized, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system makes mistakes."

Dow says wrongful convictions point out serious shortcomings that Justice For All refuses to acknowledge. "Justice For All people are mostly middle-class white folks who are never going to be put in the position of being wrongly accused."

He says that many of those exonerated -- by DNA results or other evidence -- are poor and black, and that Justice For All does not consider that the wrongly convicted are crime victims, too. Dow says they "tend to have a racist view that, well, the person may not have done this, but he did something else."

JFA representative Rusty Hubbarth, testifying to Texas legislators last year on a proposal for a moratorium on executions, was asked by one lawmaker, "Rusty, you're not in favor of executing innocent people, are you?"

"Not this week," Hubbarth joked.

The humor was probably lost on two men in attendance that day. Randall Adams and Kerry Cook had collectively spent more than a decade in prison for crimes they didn't commit -- they'd both come within hours of execution.

I've never understood why people who claim to be "tuff on crime" are so often utterly cavalier about convicting the wrong guy. I suppose they usually operate on the "if he didn't do this, he must've done something" theory, however misguided that may be. Even if you grant that idea some validity, it still doesn't take into account the fact that if you're convicting the wrong guy, the real criminal is still out there, free as a bird. Why doesn't that bother them? How exactly is justice being served here?

One last thing to note here is the sidebar story about the author, Scott Nowell. Nowell is an ex-con who did time for false imprisonment of an ex-girlfriend a few years back. His past did not endear him to JFA, whose reps not only refused to talk to him but accused him of harassment. It's an interesting twist on the story.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 06, 2002 to Legal matters

"I've never understood why people who claim to be "tuff on crime" are so often utterly cavalier about convicting the wrong guy."

It's because the rhetoric of "tough on crime" isn't about guilt, innocence, or justice. It's about organizing society in a certain way, with certain people on top and other kinds of people subject to them.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on October 7, 2002 3:56 PM