By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – Roberta Roper and Teresa Baker had already lost their most precious possessions when their children were murdered in separate incidents. They refuse to lose anything else.
So the two Maryland women were on Capitol Hill Wednesday to urge Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would protect victims’ rights.
“It was one thing to be made a victim,” said Baker, of Brandywine, at a news conference to rally support for the amendment. “But to be made a victim of our justice system that I trusted was devastating.”
Baker, whose son John was fatally shot five times in 1991, said a Maryland court failed to notify her when his murderer’s 30-year sentence was reconsidered after two years.
Baker said she did not trek to Capitol Hill in search of retribution. She just says that, “No one should have to go through what I went through at the hands of the justice system.”
The proposed amendment would establish the right for victims to be heard at trials and other proceedings involving their attackers. It would also give victims the right to a speedy trial, the right to be notified of their offender’s release or escape, and to have their safety considered in determining their offender’s release.
The proposed amendment was approved in September by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has yet to be taken up by the full Senate. A companion bill was introduce in the House, but it has not been heard there.
If it passed in Congress, the proposed amendment would still have to be ratified by three- fourths of the states before it took effect.
Representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Organization for Victim Assistance were also on hand for Wednesday’s news conference, which was also held to honor National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
MADD President Millie Webb said the time has come for victims of violent crime to be granted the most basic rights and the Constitution is the only way to ensure that victims will have these rights.
“It’s a good thing that Lady Liberty is blindfolded, because she would surely be disheartened to see the injustice that victims face every day in this country,” Webb said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said a federal law to protect victims is necessary because the Constitution gives 15 specific rights to defendants, but no basic rights to victims.
“If certain rights come into conflict, the defendant’s rights will always triumph over the victim’s rights,” Feinstein said. “There are no rights that protect the victim from total exclusion of the government process.”
Roper, of Upper Marlboro, said that after her daughter Stephanie was murdered in 1982, she and her husband were mistreated by the justice system. She said she did not want others to be mistreated, too.
She founded the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, which was at the forefront of a coalition that helped pass a victims’ rights amendment to the Maryland Constitution in 1994. Roper is also the chairwoman for Maryland’s State Board of Victim Services and the co-chairwoman of the National Victims’ Constitutional Amendment Network.
Roper said that although the state law has been effective, federal legislation still needs to be passed in order for justice to be served. She said that 32 states have amendments for victims’ rights, but people should not have to fear that their rights will be lost if they are victimized across state lines.
“The time has come to grant victims similar rights in our great Constitution,” said Roper.