Victims seldom show up for sentencings. And rarely do they request a chance to speak out in court about the impact of the crime on their lives.
But when they do make the effort, the sentence imposed is more severe, says prosecutor Ernie Jones."If the judge is facing just the defendant and his attorney in a courtroom that is essentially empty, it's just human nature for the judge to focus more on the defendant than the victim of the crime who is absent," said Jones.
During his 16 years as a prosecutor, Jones has come to appreciate the value of a victim who becomes involved by attending court hearings and filling out a victim impact statement expressing views about sentencing.
"Having victims and their families present reminds us why we're here. Obviously, the justice system is slanted toward the defendant. The whole idea is to make sure the defendant gets a fair trial. But victims need to play more of a part."
He understands, however, that many victims hesitate to express anger openly against a defendant because they fear retaliation or want to protect their privacy. Many have difficulty adjusting their work schedules to accommodate court dates that frequently change. And some victims simply want to forget the trauma of the crime by detaching themselves from the judicial process.
In cases of violent crimes, Jones makes it a practice to contact victims at the beginning of a case to inform them of victim reparation and counseling programs available through the county. While it's a policy of the Salt Lake County attorney's office to discuss a plea negotiation with a victim before accepting it, adherence to the policy varies with the attitude of the individual attorney, he said. Some attorneys feel they know best and will go ahead in spite of objections.
"Unfortunately, some attorneys contact victims and some don't. But County Attorney Dave Yocom has made informing victims a high priority. Generally, if a prosecutor explains the strengths and weaknesses of a case and the limitations of overcrowded prisons, victims support a plea bargain. If victims don't support it and feel strongly about having their day in court, I then reconsider my position," he said.
While prosecutors and judges are demonstrating increased sensitivity toward victims in the past six years "there is still a long way to go," he said.
"Sometimes the human tragedy of a case can tear you apart. It may be easier for you to distance yourself from the victim because the case is so heartwrenching. But you need to remain sensitive to their suffering," he said.
Victims have the power to change the legal system, he said.
The mother of murder-victim Maurine Hunsaker was excluded from sitting in on the trial of Ralph Menzies because the defense attorney indicated she may call her as a witness. Menzies was found guilty in 1988 of murdering Hunsaker, who was kidnapped while working as a gas station attendant. Her body was discovered two days later in Big Cottonwood Canyon. She had been strangled and her throat had been slit.
"Throughout the trial, this poor woman sat outside the courtroom door and was never called as a witness. She was so angry that she initiated legislation to change the `exclusionary rule' to allow victims' families to sit in on the trial. It's a great step of progression for victims," said Jones.
"Lawmakers seem to respond favorably to victims who have the courage to change a justice system that has long been founded on the notion of protecting the accused. It's a system that is overloaded. And sometimes, in the hustle of working many cases, victims are neglected."