What role should crime victims play in plea bargains?
Mar 03, 2010
Prosecutors represent the state, not crime victims, and they're charged with seeking justice, not convictions. But the Houston Press published a feature questioning whether prosecutors should be required to notify crime victims or get their sign-off before entering into a plea deal. The Harris County DA's Office says "There is no obligation to give advance notice to all victims of plea bargains," a policy which has the Mayor's crime victim advocate Andy Kahan hopping mad.
There's a problematic conflation throughout the article of "victim's rights," which is a largely ephemeral, political idea, with legal rights of defendants accused by the state, which are enshrined in the US Constitution. The Press article is rife with examples of crime victims who say "their rights have been walked on," but those aren't legal rights, only theoretical ones the speakers think they should have. After all, as the Press notes, "The law does not provide victims any way to enforce their rights after they've been violated." And if you can't enforce a "right" when it's violated, then it isn't one - not in a legal sense, anyway.
The main example in the story probably isn't the best one for victim's rights advocates since it atypically involves a high-profile, politically connected defendant: Former US Congressman Craig Washington. His light plea deal (2 years probation) probably isn't what the average black man firing a gun at white youth could expect in Houston, regardless of the victim's wishes.
But I was interested to notice the main reason the victims say they're unhappy at Washington's plea deal: Not at the outcome but because they didn't get the chance to say their piece. The two boys who Craig Washington shot at "wanted to tell their side of the story to a jury, and made it clear to Harris County prosecutor Lynne Parsons that they didn't want to settle for a plea deal. If a jury let Washington off, so be it."
I find fascinating this overarching desire by the victims to tell their story to 12 people they do not know. Indeed, getting to tell their story, by their own account, was more important than any punishment Washington might receive.