W. Patrick Kenna lost thousands of dollars in a fraud, and tried to speak against the men who cheated him before they were sentenced. When the judge refused, he won an appellate court ruling that he be allowed to speak at a new hearing. U.S. News & World Report says the reversal reflects the growing influence of crime victims since the passage in 2004 of federal legislation granting them new and expanded rights. The changes are beginning to have an impact, shifting the balance of a legal system that historically has been a two-party affair. A result is tension between legal parties and concern among defense attorneys who fear that a greater role for victims conflicts with defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Historically, the adversarial legal system has set roles in criminal cases only for the prosecutor and the accused. Victims have been relegated to the sidelines unless they were testifying. Although the interests of prosecutors usually align with those of victims, they are not always the same; some victims want tougher sentences than prosecutors do. Victims’ rights advocates pushing to put victims on an equal footing with defendants and prosecutors. “What our goal should be is to put the victim back into the position as if no crime had been committed,” says Paul Cassell, a former federal judge from Utah who resigned to advocate for victims. Crime victims began winning rights at the state level decades ago, but the 2004 legislation brought the protections to the federal level for the first time. Victims must be notified about court developments. They must be allowed to speak during bail and sentencing hearings. The law allows them to appeal rulings when they think their rights are being violated. The Justice Department is funding legal clinics in Maryland, Arizona, and South Carolina, to help victims assert these rights in court.