Crimes, victims sometimes overlooked in mountains
Eagle County may be a safe community by urban standards, but it isn’t immune to crime.
Local law enforcement responded to five domestic violence calls, a sexual assault and a report of battery last week alone. The district attorney’s office in Eagle County reported a 9.8 percent increase in domestic violence and drunk driving cases last year.
“Eagle County is a wonderful community to live and work in, yet there is crime here and most people aren’t aware of it,” said Deena Ezzell, the county’s victims services coordinator.
Making local residents more aware that crime does happen here is one of the goals of victims’ advocates this week, which is National Crime Victims’ Rights week. Advocates also hope residents will step up and help support crime victims.
Recent events, including the arrest and upcoming trial of Kobe Bryant on rape charges, have illuminated the issue of victims’ rights. Bryant’s accuser, a 19-year-old woman, has been the target of national attention and has received death threats since Bryant’s arrest last summer. Her mother attended a victims’ rights rally in Denver earlier this week.
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Most states, including Colorado, have laws that guarantee certain rights for victims. The Colorado Constitution, for example, guarantees victims the right to be made aware of upcoming court proceedings regarding their case as well as the right to read a statement during sentencing.
There also is a movement to change the U.S. Constitution to include a victim’s rights amendment. The proposed amendment is expected to reach the Senate floor today.
Despite the heightened awareness of victims’ rights in the media, most people don’t think about how crime affects them.
“Most of us tend not to think about crime and victimization until it happens to us or someone we know,” Ezzell said. “Part of the reason to have something like Crime Victims’ Rights Week is to prod people to think about it, despite their lack of experience, in their context as a community member, as a voter, as a potential juror and as a potential advocate for crime victims.”
Victims can receive help
Despite the powerlessness victims may feel immediately after the crime, they do have rights. In Colorado, crime victims have the right to be informed of all the stages of the critical justice process and to make a statement during the sentencing stage of the process.
Ezzell’s office, for example, works as a liaison between victims and the court system. Allowing victims to stay informed of the judicial process, and to even participate to some extent, is critical, Ezzell said.
When someone has been a victim of a crime, they feel as if they have lost control over their own lives, said Diana, a victim advocate. It is the county’s policy to not release the full names of victim advocates for their protection.
Diana’s job is different than that of the police. When she is asked to speak to a victim, Diana’s goal is to help the person deal with his or her emotions and immediate needs.
“There’s one thing that is disheartening for me,” she said. “Often the victim’s first thought is what they did to become a victim. We’ve created a culture that puts so much responsibility on the person.”
“I think that people mean well,” Ezzell added, “but if they don’t know the facts the things that they say or do may not be what’s most helpful to the victim at the time.”
Responses like, “It could have been worse” or indicating the victim should have done something different to have prevented the crime can be unhelpful. But helping the victim gain that sense of control back is important. Even something as small as helping a victim figure out where his or her children should stay for the night can help, Diana said.
Perhaps one of the largest groups of crime victims in Eagle County are victims of domestic violence. Eagle County reported 201 domestic violence cases in 2003, more than any of the counties in the 5th Judicial District, that also includes Summit, Clear Creek and Lake counties.
The county’s Resource Center, which provides help and shelter for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, received 1,510 calls last year from victims or from people who knew a victim. The center served 304 victims of domestic violence last year, said Beverly Christiansan, executive director for the center.
“The shelter has been full almost continually from the time that it opened and we have five women and 11 children presently,” she said. “So our numbers haven’t gone down, they have continued to grow.”
One of the most common misconceptions Christiansan hears about crime, particularly domestic violence, is that most victims are Latino. On the contrary, only 37 percent of the people the Resource Center serves are Spanish-speaking or Latino. Domestic violence crosses ethnic, economic and gender lines, she said. Not even older couples, or lesbian and gay couples are immune to domestic violence.
“I worked with a woman who was here skiing with her husband,” she said. “She had broken down at the hospital. She had been married 40 years. She just skied down the mountain and said she was tired of being abused. She told someone for the first time what had been going on in her marriage.”
Chances are everyone knows someone who is a victim of crime -they just may not know it, Diana said.
“It’s a private matter,” Diana said. “People don’t wear it on their sleeve often.”
Victim’s rights amendment proposed
The U.S. Senate is expected today to begin debating a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would federally mandate specific crime victim’s rights – an idea that has garnered the support of politicians from both parties and the opposition of a national advocacy group for domestic violence victims.
The proposed amendment would provide victims of violent crime with constitutionally guaranteed rights to be notified of proceedings in the criminal case; to attend public proceedings in the case; to make a statement at certain judicial proceedings, such as sentencing; and to have the court order the convicted offender to pay restitution for the harm caused by the crime.
No local victims advocacy group has taken an official position on the issue, but Beverly Christiansan, executive director for the Eagle County Resource Center, said she is in favor of the effort.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
Such provisions already exist in some shape or form as state statutes. Colorado’s Constitution, for example, contains a victim’s rights act that gives crime victims rights similar to those in the proposed constitutional amendment. But these rights are not guaranteed everywhere, said Steve Siegel, Colorado’s spokesman for the national amendment campaign.
“It’s not occurring in all places,” he said. “We’d like to think of equal justice for all people in our country, but you have a federal system, you have a tribal system, a juvenile system, state systems… In order to create continuity, you have to create a foundation with a national amendment.”
Christiansan agreed. While groups like the victims services center out of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office help victims through the court process, it’s not required.
“An example – a perpetrator who speaks Spanish will receive translation and any help that they need,” she said. “The victims do not receive that. We try to help them as much as we can, but it’s not something the court will provide them.”
The proposed amendment has won the endorsement of Democrats and Republicans, including President Bush. From Colorado, Sen. Wayne Allard has endorsed the amendment.
But support for the amendment is not unanimous. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposes the amendment, as do some crime victims advocacy groups, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
In a position paper about the issue, executive director Lynn Rosenthal notes that victim advocacy work must continue to evolve.
“In our advocacy work to end domestic violence, we have learned the hard way that many of our practices and policies have resulted in unintended consequences for victims. We continue to learn as we go…,” she said.
“A constitutional amendment would freeze in place what we know today about protecting the rights of victims, and does not give us the flexibility to make ongoing changes as we learn more,” she added.
Such an amendment could undermine the truth-seeking process in a criminal trial, said Kyle O’Dowd, legislative director for the defense lawyer’s association.
“The justice systems is primarily designed to protect the public at large, and to determine the truth of crime,” he said. “This doesn’t help further either of these goals.”
Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.
According to the Eagle County district attorney’s office Eagle County in 2003 had:
– 201 domestic violence cases
– 12 child abuse or sex assault investigations
– 2,022 new victims of crime
To reach a victim advocate with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, call 328-8544.
To reach someone with the Eagle County Resource Center call 949-7086.