The Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday threw its support to the victims' rights movement, ruling that the state's judges must listen to victims before sentencing criminals.
The decision by the state's highest court means that once a defendant is convicted, his victims have a right to tell the judge in court how the crime has affected them, rather than relying on written statements.
"It's easy to read a statement and brush it off, but to hear someone's voice when they talk about the emotional toll of the loss of a son or a daughter, it's a lot harder to put that out of your mind," said Cynthia M. Ferris, a veteran Anne Arundel County prosecutor.
The state's highest court said recent state laws and ballot initiatives bolstering victims rights underscore the need for judges to hear what criminals have done to their victims.
"Trial judges must give appropriate consideration to the impact of the crime upon the victims. An important step towards accomplishing that task is to accept victim impact testimony wherever possible," Judge Robert L. Karwacki wrote in the unanimous ruling.
In November, voters passed an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing victims a "Bill of Rights" that includes the right to be heard at sentencing. Before that, Maryland law allowed victims to submit written statements to sentencing judges but let them speak in court only at the judge's discretion. Legal experts said yesterday's decision clarified the November vote by specifying that victims be allowed to speak in court.
The ruling could be appealed to the federal courts, but that is not expected, experts said.
"If there was any argument that the constitutional amendment lacked legal clout, this opinion puts that to rest," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
"It gives standing to victims' families and permits them to be more than just a crime statistic when the defendant is sentenced," he said.
Some legal experts yesterday said they feared the decision could turn sentencings into emotion-charged forums, where the focus is less on justice than on letting crime victims vent their anger.
"I'll do what the Court of Appeals tells me to do," said Prince George's County Circuit Judge Vincent J. Femia. "But what this may do is tell the courts to act as a cathartic experience for victims, and that's really an insult to the victims."
But the ruling was praised by both prosecutors and victims' rights advocates.
"It's fantastic," said Roberta Roper, who had been following the case. She said she was prohibited from speaking at the sentencing for the defendants who kidnapped and murdered her daughter Stephanie Ann Roper in 1982.
The decision is the result of an appeal by relatives of two people killed by a Baltimore County drunken driver. Robin Cianos and Evelyn Barrett asked that the Court of Special Appeals reverse Sean Patrick Hall's March 7, 1994, sentence because they were not allowed to speak. Hall, 24, of Edgewood was sentenced by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Christian M. Kahl to 14 months of work release after he pleaded guilty to two counts of auto manslaughter in the Aug. 2, 1993, accident that killed Mrs. Barrett's husband and Mrs. Cianos' son. Neither relative was allowed to address the judge, but both Hall and his girlfriend were allowed to express their remorse.
The appellate court yesterday dismissed Mrs. Cianos and Mrs. Barrett's request to vacate Judge Kahl's sentence, saying it would be unlikely to change the outcome.
"I think that what the court is telling people is that there's nothing we can do in this case, but from now on, look, you have to listen to these victims," said Russell P. Butler, the Camp Springs lawyer who represented Mrs. Cianos and Mrs. Barrett.