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Victims' Rights

are those unloved unprotected by the law?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 30, 1997.

Victims’ rights have been an issue in the Oklahoma City bombing trial since the cinders began to descend around the Murah Federal Office building. It is a most odd process, watching the amount of money and time wasted on therapy for grieving relatives and friends. I say wasted because I am not sure that the relatives and friends are solaced or improved by the attention, and it is money, time and effort that could be going to solving the crime.

You recall that there was a large commotion when the trial was to be moved out of Oklahoma City because it would be difficult for the family and friends of victims to attend the trial. Then, the judge ruled that he would not use Mile High Stadium for the trial, and that grieving victims had no particular right to presence in the courtroom. More hoo-hah. All this is very annoying from just about every point of view. Great public expense finally went into the construction of television capabilities so that victims in Oklahoma City could watch the proceedings live.

Setting aside the essential right that justice be done, what relevance does the emotional state of so-called victims of the bombing have to the trial? We can expect days of testimony from people who didn’t see the crime, know nothing about it beyond the fact that there child or loved one or soon-to-be-divorced one was killed, injured. All they will do, hopefully for the prosecution, is weave an image of such agony that the jury will be swayed and will vote to convict.

There is a large bureaucracy now involved with victim’s rights. It is a fairly new development, but I fear it grows out of all proportion because of, bluntly, race baiting. During the Reagan years, America convinced itself against all evidence that it was the declining white population that was the primary victim of crime. Even conservative politicians could not help themselves, and budgeted much money for this soothing of the electorate, which needed to be consoled. It would be interesting indeed to see who gets more consolation: a white housewife whose BMW was stolen at gunpoint or the children of the inner city who saw their mother get raped. Probably depends on who knows how to dial a phone and talk to a city editor, desk sergeant, or talk radio host.

It is politic, whenever I bitch about criminal justice, to remind listeners I am currently a convicted felon on bad check charges, and that I went to jail. During my trial, no less than two employed members of the local victim consolation trust were present, playing no role, simply sitting there, hour on hour. Your tax dollars at work, for even if these individuals were volunteers, surely there was something to do, someone to console elsewhere.

During the final stages of the OK trial, we can expect, nay mail in, the testimonies from all hysterical relatives of the victims. It is right to inquire if it is merely bad taste or emotional blackmail, but it is better to inquire if it is even relevant. If the victims in the Murah had nobody who liked them, for example, would anyone consider that relevant? If the children were all hated by parents and family, if the dead adults were totally unmissed and unmourned by their relatives, could the defense put these people on the stand to say, in essence, 'what's the big deal? Who cares, nobody liked them.' No civilized mortal would suggest the unloved should be outside the process of law any more than the ghost of that tiny little girl, Baily something, whose corpse made the cover of every newspaper. But if so, than the opposite must be asked: should the beloved be treated better by the law? Shouldn’t, really, the quality of the actual victims be immaterial to the concept of blind justice?

In the local newspaper, an officer was recently lauded for her work with rape victims. She, it turns out, is compassionate, dedicated, and wise. She is concerned with the victims of that crime. Yet, all the qualities listed make for her the image of a great therapist but a lousy cop: an avenger, who has already convicted and punishes those accused of the crime. Nowhere in the article does it suggest that cops have an obligation to be as objective as possible. Here was an officer lauded for doing exactly the opposite. The concept of victim’s rights warps the job of the police, who are now admittedly stroking the public for budget considerations.

It may be politic, it may even be for the common good, but it makes for a corrupt legal system when cops, not judges or juries, can publicly label victims and criminals. Once public money is spent, an inertia sets in to defend that decision. The theory is, cops are here to decide if a crime has been committed and to act upon it. They have no right to try it by themselves. Victims' rights can lead to official lynch mobs. It is important, however, to remember that the job of the police is to establish who is the victim, who is the criminal, and present all evidence to the court. Nothing more.