A trial centers around a person accused of a crime. His constitutional right to a fair hearing is paramount.
That is the cornerstone upon which our entire system of justice rests. It is not difficult to see, however, why victims of crimes often find the trial process frustrating. They have been hurt, yet all the court's attention focuses on the person who allegedly did the hurting.
For some time now, victims who ask, "What about our rights?" have gotten a sympathetic ear from politicians and voters, both of whom overwhelmingly supported a victims' rights amendment to the state constitution in last November's elections.
This was neither surprising (how many people are against fairer treatment for victims?) nor terribly significant. The measure's importance was more symbolic than practical; whether it holds real legal clout was questionable.
Not any more. Earlier this month, Maryland's highest court ruled that judges must listen to victims -- not merely through written statements, but in person -- before sentencing criminals. This decision is a far greater victory for victims than the amendment, though the amendment says the same thing. The amendment is the product of popular sentiment, of citizens claiming the right to be heard; the ruling is the court's acknowledgment of that right and ordering that it be upheld. The former has little meaning without the latter.
Of course, the court's decision will please victims' rights advocates and the general public. The question is, will victim impact statements impinge on the defendant's right to a fair hearing? It does not appear so.
For one thing, victims will be heard after the accused has been found guilty. Also, the whole purpose of a sentencing hearing is for both sides to give a judge as much information about the defendant as possible so he can render a fair punishment. Mitigating factors such as a troubled background or remorsefulness must be weighed against the seriousness of the crime. A judge can balance the scales of justice more effectively if he hears from both sides.
Victims must recognize that the Court of Appeals' ruling does not change the nature of the judicial process. Trials and sentencing hearings are not instruments for venting their anger or therapy for their trauma. The court has not decided to hear victims to make them feel better, though having their say seems to produce that happy effect. A victim's statement is important to the court for what it says about the defendant. The process still revolves around him.