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Nashville's plush Opryland Hotel regularly hosts conventions, but a weeklong conference in August had a more somber tone than the usual vacationlike atmosphere of such events. The 1,500 in attendance were crime victims -- and the advocates, cops and counselors whose job it is to help them. Hundreds of organizations, almost none of which existed 25 years ago, sent representatives to the National Organization of Victim Assistance conference.
The convention included top leaders and activists in the victims' rights movement, a loose coalition that has forced fundamental changes in the way victims are treated. Once neglected, they are now a force to be reckoned with -- even feared -- by politicians, prosecutors, the judiciary and the prison system.
Among the conference sessions was a workshop sponsored by Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). Renny Cushing, a respected former New Hampshire state legislator whose father was murdered in his home in 1988, was one of the speakers. With him was Jennifer Bishop, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were gunned down by a teenager in a 1990 thrill kill in Illinois.
The session was called "Healing the Wounds of Murder," and most of the audience seemed attentive. However, workshop hosts noticed a middle-aged woman who took a back-row seat in a far corner.
They described her as if she were a sullen student defying a teacher, facing sideways in her chair, affecting an air of disinterest. As the workshop began, she ate ice from a cup, crunching loudly enough to be heard by all 40 or so in the room.
The woman was Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victims' rights group Justice For All. She soon began interrupting the speakers. According to some attendees, these exchanges followed:
Cushing asked Clements to hold her questions until after the presentation. She refused, demanding answers.
"I want you to tell us," Clements angrily insisted, "what are you? Are you an abolitionist [anti-death penalty] group or a victim support group?"
"We're both," replied Bishop.
That answer was unacceptable to Clements. She repeated her line of questioning, then stunned listeners when she told Cushing and Bishop, "You're really a bunch of abolitionists who just happened to have family members killed."
By all indications, there seems to be just one side to the death penalty issue for Clements: You're either for it, or against her. The very idea that a person close to a murder victim could oppose the death penalty is abhorrent to some others as well in the victims community.
The clash over capital punishment is only one of the conflicts confronting the burgeoning movement for crime victims' rights. After making enormous strides in more than two decades of working for reforms, this crusade is showing growing pains.
Outwardly, the public may see a united front -- outraged victims and relatives rallying for various reforms or even voicing a certain vengeance after a jury verdict. That high-profile presence, however, belies increasing friction. Some early advocates have bowed out of the movement altogether; others complain that some nonvictims are carrying personal political agendas. And as Cushing and Bishop's group reported, some double standards have developed among public advocates for victims: Those who don't support the death penalty or even the prosecution may get second-class treatment or be shut out entirely from help.
While other movements before it have also evolved acrimoniously, the infighting and questionable behavior by some victims' groups reveals wounds that are closer to becoming infected than to healing.
One longtime victims' advocate, saddened by the discord within the movement, said, "It's almost like 'My pain is bigger than yours.' "
Pioneers in the push for victims' rights tell of a callous justice system that had disregarded victims for decades.
Until recent years, a mother whose child had been murdered might pick up a newspaper and find out the defendant had accepted a plea bargain. Sexual assaults, when prosecuted, often seemed to put the victim on trial. Victims could be largely left to fend for themselves as cases moved through the courts.
Diane Marino, a member of Parents of Murdered Children (POMC), recalls her first exposure to the court system after her son was slain in 1985. She says Harris County prosecutors told her, "I was not supposed to show any emotion because the jury might see and cause a mistrial. I didn't even know what a mistrial was."
A victim's experience with the system was often cold and impersonal. They were not allowed to participate in the sentencing portion of a trial, and it seemed everyone but them had a stake in the process.
They also had no input in parole hearings. A rapist could be sentenced to 20 years in prison, yet the woman he'd assaulted might look up at the grocery store four years later and be shocked to see her freed assailant.
Victims wanted a voice in sentencing and plea bargains, to be notified of developments in their case and of parole hearings for the convicted. They wanted someone to shepherd them through the system and explain the rules of the game.
They began to realize those goals only when those who had been harmed by crime began organizing.