Senators Push for Victims' Rights

Collene Campbell wasn't allowed into the trial of her son's killers. Earlene Eason wasn't told when her son's killer was going to court. And Duane Lynn couldn't ask a jury to give his wife's killer life in prison instead of a death sentence.

Such cases are evidence that Congress needs to pass a constitutional amendment protecting victims' rights, say supporters of an effort that has hit dead ends in Congress for the last seven years.

"In each individual case there is a very real and very personal hurt that comes when the criminal justice system appears to turn its back on victims," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his proposed amendment.

The provision would ensure victims of violent crime the right to attend public court hearings, to testify at sentencing or parole hearings, and to be notified if their attacker is released or escapes from prison.

The proposal has plenty of opposition.

James Orenstein, a former federal prosecutor who helped convict Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and mob boss John Gotti, said the amendment could hinder prosecutors, particularly in organized crime cases where victims are often being investigated as well.

"My concern is the amendment accomplishes little and promises more than it can deliver, and what it delivers it delivers at the expense of law enforcement," Orenstein said.

Steven Twist, an attorney for the National Victims Constitutional Amendment Project, said the amendment gives judges discretion to ignore the requirements if they would affect the justice system.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said a constitutional amendment is not needed. He has introduced legislation - supported by several Democrats - that would provide statutory assurances of victims' rights.

All 50 states and the federal government already have laws on the books guaranteeing some degree of victims' rights and 33 states have constitutional amendments. But Twist said they have not fixed a judicial culture skewed to favor the accused.

"I've been deeply perplexed as to why people feel this will affect the administration of justice," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I think there are defense attorneys who don't want a paralyzed victim in the courtroom, who don't want grieving small children in the courtroom."

Campbell, a city councilwoman and former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., said she and her husband had to sit in the hall during the trial of the men who strangled her son and threw his body from an airplane into the Pacific Ocean.

Eason, a Gary, Ind., resident, said she was not notified of court dates in Minneapolis for her son's killers and was not allowed to object to a plea bargain that prosecutors struck.

Lynn, a Peoria, Ariz., resident, was at a homeowners association meeting when a neighbor angry at how his bushes had been trimmed opened fire, wounding several and killing two, including Lynn's wife of 50 years, before his gun jammed.

He was not allowed to ask the jury to spare his wife's killer from execution before he was sentenced to death.

"I felt kicked around and ignored by the very system this government has in place to protect law-abiding citizens," Lynn said.

The Bush administration supports the amendment.