Victim rights legislation expected to pass


A proposed amendment to the state Constitution guaranteeing rights for crime victims is virtually certain to be sent to Maryland voters this fall, the governor and legislative leaders said yesterday.

Those rights would include that victims be treated with "dignity, respect and sensitivity" when they come in contact with the judicial process. Victims also would have the right to be notified of relevant criminal justice proceedings, to attend them and to be heard.

Similar proposals have passed the state Senate the past two years, only to die in the House Judiciary Committee.

Yesterday, however, with crime-victim advocates Roberta Roper and John Walsh seated at his side, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. predicted passage of legislation that would put the measure on the November ballot.

"It is moving along at such a rapid rate it may be a slam-dunk," said Mr. Vallario, D-Prince George's.

The proposed constitutional amendment has gained momentum this year on several fronts:

* For the first time, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has adopted the proposal as his own, throwing the weight of his office behind its passage.

* In an election year, legislators appear keenly interested in showing voters back home how concerned they are about violent crime.

* In the Senate, where a majority of 24 is needed for passage, the measure has 17 co-sponsors, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

* In the House, where 71 votes are needed for passage, 85 delegates have signed on as co-sponsors, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany.

In addition, the measure has the backing of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., at least 18 state's attorneys, and a long list of community, fraternal and professional organizations.

The only question critics have raised is whether the constitutional change will really bestow any rights on crime victims they do not already have, or which could not be granted just as easily through passage of a new law.

Some critics have complained the measure is purely symbolic, and that the Constitution should not be used for such purposes.

"Some say, 'It's but a symbol,' " said Mr. Curran. "Well, so what? What's wrong with a symbol if you really feel good about it?" He added that he believes the proposed amendment is more substantive than symbolic.

Crime victims and members of their families, such as Mrs. Roper, say that all they are seeking is to have the rights of victims be put on a par with those of criminal defendants.

Mrs. Roper said impetus for such a change began with her when she was excluded from the trial of the two men later convicted of abducting, raping and murdering her daughter Stephanie Ann in 1982.

"We were excluded from the most important event of our lives," she said, saying that she was routinely barred from the courtroom because she had been put on the witness list for the purpose of identifying her daughter's car.

Mr. Walsh, who became a national spokesman on victims' rights after his son Adam was abducted and murdered in Florida, now is host of the syndicated television show "America's Most Wanted."

"We don't want public hangings, although my son's body and [Mrs. Roper's] daughter's body were left on the roadside. We want simple integrity and dignity," he said.

Prosecutors and other lawyers have opposed a victims' rights amendment in the past out of fear that it would result in lawsuits that would delay criminal cases even more.

To avoid such a problem, the legislation under consideration would specifically prohibit any civil action seeking monetary damages for violation of its provisions, or any action by a crime victim to stay a criminal justice proceeding.

Fourteen other states already have similar constitutional guarantees for crime victims, including New York, Arizona, New Jersey and California. A number of other states have such proposals under consideration.

"One of the concerns expressed by opponents is that there would be a deluge of litigation," said Bonnie A. Kirkland, Mr. Schaefer's chief legislative officer. "That has just not been seen in the other states."

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