On April 3, 1982, 22-year-old Stephanie Roper was returning home from an evening out in Washington, D.C., when she accidentally veered off a dark rural road. Two men stopped, but instead of offering assistance, they abducted Stephanie and took her to an abandoned farmhouse in Maryland. There, Stephanie was repeatedly raped and tortured. The two men ultimately killed Stephanie, dismembering and burning her body.
Already devastated by the horrific loss of their daughter, the Ropers were shut out of the legal process when the murderers were eventually captured. While her parents, Vince and Roberta, were notified of the initial proceedings, they were not advised of the later continuances. They were not only excluded from the courtroom during the first trial, but in subsequent proceedings as well.
The murderers’ defense team argued that Stephanie’s parents would be emotional, irrelevant, and probable cause for reversal on appeal if they attended hearings. The court agreed, and denied Vince and Roberta the right to be a voice for their daughter.
Roberta Roper stated during congressional testimony in 2002 how that court decision affected her family: “Like countless other families then and now, we struggled not only with the devastating effects of the crimes committed against our loved ones, but the consequences … of being shut out of the criminal justice system we depended on and trusted.”
Almost 20 years later, Oscar Antonio Lopez-Sanchez was shot in the back as he returned home from work. Bullet fragments lodged in his spine, sentencing him to a lifetime in a wheelchair. When he sought restitution for his lost wages, he was denied notice of the court proceedings, the opportunity to be heard, and restitution. When Antonio challenged the judge’s order, he was told that he couldn’t even bring the challenge because he had no standing in the very case that arose from his shooting. And when he appealed, he was told that he couldn’t appeal — even though two judges of the state’s highest court decried “the gross injustice to Mr. Lopez-Sanchez.”
For too long, our court system has tilted in favor of accused criminals and has proven appallingly indifferent to the suffering of crime victims.
But that is finally beginning to change under the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA), which was enacted five years ago. The CVRA, which was named after Stephanie Roper and other crime victims, is the most comprehensive legislation ever passed to protect the rights of crime victims.
It established the rights to be reasonably protected and to be notified, present, and heard at critical stages of the legal process. It also established the rights to confer with the prosecutor, as well as to restitution, proceedings free from unreasonable delay, and fair and respectful treatment.
Most significantly, the new law provides victims with legal standing to enforce these rights, including access to federal appeals courts.
The CVRA also created crime victims’ rights clinics across the country that are dedicated to changing the legal culture with respect to victims’ rights by providing direct representation to individual victims in criminal court.
For example, with the assistance of a clinic, a 17-year-old victim of sex trafficking was able to assert her rights and protect her privacy. During the trial of the accused trafficker, the defense subpoenaed the victim’s entire juvenile record — a record that could contain information about her counseling, medical care, and school records. Though the trial court first granted the defense’s request, the victim used the rights granted to her by the CVRA to secure the right to be heard before any of the information reached the hands of the defense. Ultimately, the district court ruled that the defendant was only entitled to see very limited information from the victim’s records.
The National Center for Victims of Crime released a report in August that evaluated the progress of the clinics. According to the report, “we believe that the state clinics are on the road to fulfilling the intentions of their architects and funders. All of the clinics have pushed the envelope of victims’ rights in their state courts. Some have won significant victories in gaining standing for victims and expanding the definition of particular rights. Others are enjoined in the battle. But all have raised awareness of victims’ rights with prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and police officials.”
On this fifth anniversary of the CVRA, we should celebrate its successes and continue to do all we can to ensure that crime victims are provided the rights they deserve.
U.S. Senators Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are the authors of the Crime Victims Rights Act of 2004.