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.