Friday, January 22, 2010

Victims speaking out

One of the reasons I write this blog is that I believe that those not involved in the criminal justice system should be able to see a little of what we do here. I also think people are inherently interested in crime and criminal law. But sometimes I know that those who experience a crime first hand are the ones who feel the most left out.

Here in Texas we have a process called allocution. Here's how it works: after a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, he is sentenced by the judge. At that point, he remains in the courtroom while a victim, or relative of the victim, has the opportunity to speak directly to him.

The idea is to give the victim a chance to express face-to-face the hurt they have gone through, more to give the victim a sense of closure and involvement than to bring any real understanding to the defendant, I think.

And this topic comes up now because yesterday I had some people come in from out of state to allocute in a very sad case, one in which three people were killed. This is the story. Talking to the family members on the phone over the past months, I could tell they felt distanced from the proceedings, a little too uninvolved. And that, it seemed to me, made them feel powerless and to some degree frustrated. I definitely got the sense that they wanted to be a greater part of the resolution of this case, and I suspect that a full-blown trial, with them watching if not testifying, would have helped assuage the feeling of being outside the process.

Which is where allocution is so good. Sometimes a trial isn't the best resolution, from anyone's perspective. And to bring the families of those killed into court, have them face the man responsible for their pain, is a way to address their needs. Allocutions are hard to sit through, unbearably sad most of the time, but they have become a useful part of our process of justice. These moments are more than just symbolic exorcisms of grief for the families, they are a way to feel a part of justice, a way to empower them and to make the process itself less of a burden and frustration to them.

There were a lot of tears in the courtroom yesterday but there was also a great deal of relief. I know the words of the friends and family got through to the defendant, that was plain for anyone to see. But those words also gave, I am sure, those who had been wronged a sense that they had finally been able to affect the process, take an active role in the application of justice. I try hard to tell families that the length of a prison sentence isn't a proxy for the value of their loved one's life and I saw yesterday that some of those good people realized that it wasn't a huge prison sentence they needed, it was a chance to speak directly, from the heart, to the man who had taken away their son, daughter, and friend.


  1. I agree that allocutions can be cathartic for the victims. As a criminal defense attorney, I believe they can also be helpful for the defendant. Yes, as you suggest, it is good for the defendant to hear directly from the victims on the impact of the offense. In addition, it can also help achieve "closure" (if you'll forgive the term) for the defendant.

    I had a great case a year or so ago right out of a Disney movie. The complaining witness -- an 85-year-old woman -- had hired my client to wash her car. At some point, my client went into the woman's house to use the bathroom. And at some point the woman discovered that there was cash missing from the front table of her house.

    I spoke with the client before trial to discuss trial strategy. He said there was no way he was going to make the old woman testify. He wanted to plead guilty but only if he could be given the opportunity to apologize to her for betraying her trust.

    The DA was surprised by this unusual condition but readily agreed. The woman was brought up to the bar of the court at the time of the guilty plea, and my client apologized. The woman looked at him and said: "Young man, you were forgiven at the very moment you took that money. And, incidentally, you did a very good job washing my car." The whole room erupted in applause -- something I had never seen before and probably never will again.

  2. Jamison,
    An awesome story, I've never heard of anything like that. You're right, that was very Disney-esque -- if only more cases could resolve that way!


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