Victim Impact Statements and their effect on parole

I’ll start out by saying unequivocally that those who have lost a close friend or relative to a violent crime are justly aggrieved and will probably never recover from that loss. The question is (and was) what should be done with that hard and horrible truth? On the other hand, the presence of victims during sentencing, their statements to the judge, and the letters they write before parole hearings have no place in a court of law. I am just as unequivocal in this statement.

The American legal system is especially punitive in this regard. How many people actually practice the Christian ideal of forgiveness? How many people would prefer to have the killer locked up in perpetuity? The real question is how can we use victim statements to assess whether a felon is rehabilitated, no matter if he or she has spent decades in prison? The bottom line is not rehabilitation but revenge. The court facilitates revenge and retribution by using victims’ justifiable anger to argue against early release. Hence the decision to grant parole relies on the idealism of the victim’s relative(s). Watching angry and vindictive people inside a courtroom–hoping that the supposed killer suffers for his entire life–is an ugly and dispiriting experience. (Take a look at Making A Murderer in that regard.)

The Washington State Senate recently debated a bill to allow for early release. What began encouragingly became a dark debate about victim’s rights. It appears as if the bill will die on the table. Washington, a mostly progressive state, has no system of parole whatsoever. This is tragic in so many ways. First, the defendant may be wrongly convicted. It’s a mathematical certainty that some are. Second, the perpetrator might be a senior with a cane or even confined to a wheelchair. How many crimes will they commit upon release? Third, it is ridiculously expensive to house people in prison. Lastly, we should emphasive redemption and forgiveness in a country where many claim to be religious to the core. I guess as long as it doesn’t effect them it’s okay to demand eternal retribution. That’s not what Christianity is about!

Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns were given three 99 year sentences to run consecutively, that’s 297 years. Is this a joke or the expression of a judge whose anger has overwhelmed his judgment. And they are wrongly convicted.

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About ken

I am a former Toronto teacher and writer now living in Vancouver. I work with Dr. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, with whom I published Eye of the Hurricane: My path from Darkness to Freedom (Chicago review Press, 2011), as Director of Media Relations and as an advocate for wrongly convicted prisoners. Other publication credits include Songs of Aging Children (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) a book of short stories about troubled youth, and Taking Steam, a play co-authored with the late Brian Shein, staged at New York's Jewish Repertory Theatre and Toronto in 1983. Life Without (Quattro Books, 2012) is a novella about a New York cab driver wrongly convicted of killing his pregnant wife. Gary Geddes (Lt. Governor's Award for Literary Excellence) described it as "one of the most brilliant and harrowing short novels I've read since I went on a John Hawkes binge."

2 thoughts on “Victim Impact Statements and their effect on parole

  1. As you say to allow them to just emotionalize the whole courtroom into severe hate and retribution is just out of control in our judicial system… and hurts the whole society in leaning it away from any rehabilitation efforts as opposed to the hate and retribution.

    And yes, I so agree, it is obvious that Judge Mertel was out of control emotionally, and unbalanced in judgment, during the trial and sentencing. I wish it could be established that he wasn’t fit to sit in judgeship at that point in his life. I think the more you look at the trial the more this becomes obvious.

    Along with that crazy, illogical sentence length, he severely condemned Sebastian’s great statement (and yes, unlike some, I have always thought Sebastian’s articulation of the facts and situation was great) as arrogant, and I think he implied psychopathic. Then he erroneously said that he thought Atif was a much better person being genuinely remorseful when in fact Atif stated no such remorse towards any guilt in the case – he was just remembering his family members and crying at the whole, inconceivably sad and Kafkaesque tragedy. In fact, when I first saw the judge describe Sebastian amoral and arrogant, I was thinking how ironic in that he was really much closer to describing himself. He wanted those boys to be guilty – and that is unforgivable for a judge.

    • Hi Jake,
      Judge Mertel allegedly told a wrongly convicted prisoner, while they were at lunch together, that two cases in his career gave him doubts. One was the case of the man he was having lunch with who was demonstrably exonerated. The second case was Burns and Rafay. I’m sure he understood what you have said here about his emotional blindness in this case. I’ve always been appalled and fascinated by his tongue lashing of Burns (what did Sebastian Burns trigger off inside this judge?) And I’ve always noticed that he failed to hear what Atif was saying. Mertel was living inside his own head for much of the trial; his evidentiary rulings were prejudicial.

      The result is that he may have ruined two lives and the lives of others in this sad case. He can always hide behind the law.

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