Janet Smith has sat through countless sentencings and watched victims’ loved ones confront the people who committed violent crimes. She’s listened to some berate shackled men and women, and heard others forgive. She’s seen some loved ones not shed a tear and had to hold others who became so emotional they could no longer speak or stand.
But in most cases, no matter how victims and their families feel, they believe it’s important to remember the person, not the crime.
“It gives them a sense of empowerment,” said Smith, who has spent 13 years as deputy district attorney for San Joaquin County. “They finally get a voice, because oftentimes the whole judicial process is about the defendant. ... I have been told by them that even though it’s very difficult and sometimes can be overwhelming, that they feel it’s important for them.”
Statements from victims in open court, directed at the person who hurt or took the life of a loved one, are common now.
However, before the 1980s, victims didn’t typically have a voice.
After the Manson family murders in 1969, in which Charles Manson instructed his cult following to kill 23-year-old model Sharon Tate and a married couple, one of the men convicted of murder, Charles Watson, was facing the possibility of parole.
As a result, Tate’s mother, Doris Tate, spearheaded a campaign to allow victims and their families to speak during sentencings and parole hearings, in order to have a voice in the punishment.
In 1982, California created a law allowing victims of violent crime speak at the sentencing phase of the trial as well as parole hearings. And those victims weren’t just the son who was killed or the daughter who was kidnapped. It was the families and friends, suffering from the pain or loss.
During the judicial process, the victim impact statement is the one and only time that the spotlight is on the victim instead of the defendant, said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
“It’s a moment when the court switches around and focuses on the victim for the first time,” she said. “It’s a moment for victims to have their day in court.”
Psychotherapist Jill Sanguinetti, based in Stockton, has counseled victims and family members of violent crime since 1988. She believes victims take the opportunity to speak in order to finally regain their power, if only for a moment.
And even though it doesn’t change what happened or elicit remorse from the offender, it can finally give the victim power, Sanguinetti said.
“The victimization results in a feeling of powerlessness and that control of their life has been taken away,” she said. “(Victim statements) put victims in control of the environment and that could be the one and only place they get control over the crime that occurred.”
Though victims aren’t required to speak, Sanguinetti said that most of her clients have taken advantage of the opportunity.
She instructs her clients to be honest, direct and understand that the speech is more important for themselves rather than the defendant. She said that in the courtroom, her clients typically speak out of anger and remembrance.
From the very beginning of the case, Smith tells the families she works with that there are two things they won’t receive from the offender: an apology or an explanation.
And even though they have an opportunity to address the defendant, without either of those elements, she said it’s difficult for the healing to begin.
“The reason people want to have that answer is because they’re still trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense,” she said. “I tell (families), the reason that their son was murdered is because he was a rival (gang member). That’s it. They still don’t understand that because it doesn’t make sense (to them). Who kills somebody they don’t know, for no reason, who never did anything to them? Because they’re wearing a different color. That is the explanation, but it still doesn’t make sense.”
Smith said that as a prosecutor of violent offenders, she has only seen one offender offer an apology. And she’s worked with some people who later wished they had never spoken at the sentencing, she said.
“Sometimes after reflection and time has passed and the pain is still there, they say that it didn’t help,” Smith said. “I have spoken with some who felt as though full justice wasn’t done and they didn’t feel as though anything they said was going to change what happened.”
And while Smith always prepares victims for that moment, people have no idea what to expect.
“I remind them that this is their only opportunity to speak, and if they want that opportunity they have the right to it,” she said. “Some can speak and some can’t.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at email@example.com.