Victim Rights Movement Gains Via Impact Statements

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The crime victims rights movement, which began decades ago, has lately reached new heights. In November, voters in five states will decide on ballot-initiated victims-rights amendments; activists hope to amend the U.S. Constitution, The New Yorker reports. The 1997 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh marked the movement’s turning point. Many of the victims wanted to speak at the trial. The government fully expected a conviction, and decided to seek the death penalty, but hoped to avoid a media circus trial like O. J. Simpson’s. Judge Richard Matsch made it difficult for victims to watch the trial; he declared some of their evidence inadmissible and cautioned the jury about victim-impact statements, deeming them too emotional.

Few of the limits that Matsch imposed would be imposed today, given changes in state and federal law. This winter, in a camera-cluttered Michigan courtroom, during the sentencing of the former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, convicted of sexual assault, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed a hundred and fifty-six women to make victim-impact statements. Victim rights is a marriage of feminism and conservatism. The logic behind its signal victory, the victim-impact statement, rests on both the therapeutic, speak-your-truth commitment of a trauma-centered feminism and the punitive, lock-them-up imperative of law-and-order conservatism. In a national conversation about criminal-justice reform, sentencing guidelines have been questioned but the gains of the victims’-rights movement are generally taken for granted. Thirty-two states have passed victims’-rights amendments. Raphael Ginsberg, who runs a prison-education program through the University of North Carolina and has written a history of the victims’-rights movement, takes a dark view. He sees the movement as part of a larger conservative attack on expertise and on the notion of a public good.

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