University of Utah law professor Paul G. Cassell says mistreatment of Oklahoma City bombing victims shows that a constitutional amendment to guarantee victims rights is needed.
Cassell, who represented two victims, noted, "When (bomber) Timothy McVeigh was sentenced, the district court afforded him and his counsel an opportunity to speak . . . but neglected to ask if any victims were present and wished to speak."That happened even though such a right was supposedly guaranteed in a victims' rights law passed by Congress. Victims were granted a motion to speak at the sentencing of co-conspirator Terry Nichols only after aggressive legal fights.
"Even in the most highly watched federal criminal case in the country, the court felt free to dispense with congressionally required victims procedures that guarantee victims the right to speak," he told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Others say the same happens routinely in other cases nationwide. And they want other rights too - such as notification of all proceedings, being able to attend them, receiving restitution and notification when a prisoner is re-leased.
So Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the Clinton administration both backed Tuesday the idea of a victims' rights amendment to cement liberties - if wording can be devised to protect other rights, such as the right to a fair trail.
Hatch said he isn't sure that an amendment now proposed by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., achieves that - and even victims rights groups are split over it because it offers protection only to victims of violent crime.
Associate Attorney General Raymond C. Fisher said the Clinton administration approves the idea of an amendment - but outlined several pages worth of technical problems it sees with the proposal.
And some senators - such as Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. - opposed any constitutional amendment, saying simple statutes could accomplish goals more quickly, and two-thirds support needed for a new amendment is unlikely to form.
But Cassell said "a federal constitutional amendment is the only way to fully guarantee that protection" for victims.
For example, he said the judge in the Terry Nichols case originally was not going to allow Oklahoma City victims to testify at his sentencing - but changed his mind only after highly publicized legal battles to enforce federal law.
"If the violation of the victims' right had occurred in a day-to-day criminal case, it is highly unlikely that such a response would have been possible," Cassell said.