ANNAPOLIS – Tom Patterson’s 2-year-old daughter was killed in a 1994 car crash, but his pain did not end there.
Although the driver of the car that struck his daughter was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated — his third such offense — Patterson was barred from speaking at the man’s sentencing.
“It tears your heart out,” Patterson said Tuesday. “They [judges] need to hear our side…It’s tough to go through, to not be able to say anything for your child, your daughter.”
He was one of a parade of victims and victims’ rights advocates who testified Tuesday to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of five bills designed to expand victims’ rights.
The package of bills was recommended by the Task Force to Examine Crime Victims’ Rights Laws in Maryland. Task force member Roberta Roper said the bills are needed to fill gaps in Maryland’s 1994 constitutional amendment for crime victims’ rights and the Victims’ Rights Act of 1997.
The bills would:
— Give victims of child abuse and other crimes that lead to injury or death the chance to speak at parole hearings, a right that is currently available only for a list of specific “violent crimes.”
— Require that the state’s attorney notify victims, when possible, of the terms and conditions of a plea agreement if the victim has filed a form asking to be notified of any such deal.
— Make it easier for victims to file a claim with the Court of Special Appeals if they felt their right to be heard had been denied.
— Require a judicial review panel to hold a hearing before reducing a criminal’s sentence and require that a victim be notified of any such hearing and be given the right to attend and address the panel.
— Make it harder to keep victims out of the courtroom, by requiring a court to find that the defendant would be denied a fair trial without the sequestration. It would also prohibit a court from sequestering a victim after he or she has testified.
No one testified against any of the bills, which were favorably received by the committee.
“I think it’s time we start to recognize the rights of the victims,” said Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil and chairman of the committee. “I don’t think there’s any opposition to these bills.”
But supporters noted that two of the bills were proposed last year, only to be stripped out of the final version of the Victims’ Rights Act of 1997 by the House Judiciary Committee.
One of those provisions, the right of victims to be present in the courtroom, was endorsed Tuesday by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The victims’ right to appeal was the other measure killed in the House last year.
“Victims have a right to be there during a trial unless it is unfair to the defendant,” said Townsend, who also spoke in favor of the proposal to notify victims about plea bargains.
“There is such disgust and disappointment when a victim doesn’t know what has happened,” said Townsend. “This gives them the right to hear what the plea bargain was agreed to.”
Roper, who is also the director of the Stephanie Roper Committee for victims’ rights, cited other horror stories.
She said Michael Allendorf’s family could not speak at the parole hearing of the girlfriend who plotted the Joppa man’s murder, because conspiracy to commit murder is not a violent crime.
“The family was horrified to discover that they had no right to be present at a parole hearing,” Roper said.
Megan Fowble said she did not understand the victim’s disgust with the criminal justice system until she became a victim herself.
The Baltimore County woman said that she had her life threatened, was choked and bruised all over her body in a Sept. 23, 1995, attack. She missed over 30 days of work over the two years that it took to prosecute her abuser.
He was sentenced to 10 years but filed for a hearing before a judicial panel, a hearing that Fowble learned of only that morning. She said she rushed to the courthouse in time to give a brief speech, but the panel had already met before she spoke. She said he only served 10 months.
“Nobody communicates with the victim. Even if this change seems small, it makes the process that much better,” Fowble said.
“I now understand why people don’t press charges. If I had the choice again, I don’t think I would have,” she said.