Justice for Some

Just who is a victim? After flexing its muscles to reform the justice system, the victims’ rights movement suffers growing pains over divisive issues.

Pam Lychner, an attractive former flight attendant with a big smile and big hair, founded Justice For All in 1993. Three years earlier, she'd been attacked by parolee William Kelley at a home she and her husband were selling.

She would probably have been raped if Joe Lychner hadn't heard his wife scream. The husband fought Kelley and held him in a closet until police arrived. Kelley was sentenced to 21 years for kidnapping and assault.

Lychner's initial response was typical of women who've been attacked: silence and fear. When Kelley was considered for parole just two years later, Lychner got mad. But when he sued the Lychners for the "mental anguish" of being detained in the closet, Lychner decided she wasn't going to take it anymore.

Clements has helped to reform the justice system as a JFA leader.
AP/Pat Sullivan
Clements has helped to reform the justice system as a JFA leader.
Cushing: A double standard exists over who's considered a victim.
Cushing: A double standard exists over who's considered a victim.

In an astonishingly short period of time, Justice For All became a major force. It got crucial early assistance from the city's crime victims' advocate, Andy Kahan. Membership expanded more though media coverage. Kahan's righteous indignation coming live from City Hall, or the attractive Lychner's concerns coming from, well, anywhere, was camera-friendly. Their message was simple: The criminal justice system is an outrage.

It was a popular message. Plenty of Texans were angry at a system viewed as too lenient. Justice For All made sense with what Lychner, and Ronald Reagan before her, called the silent majority, most of whom seemed to live in the suburbs.

By the late '80s, Texas's overcrowded jails and prisons had become revolving doors, and sections of Houston seemed overrun with crime. Change was in order, and JFA helped force the issue.

Taking a cue from MADD, JFA put personal tragedy front and center. The group's newsletter, The Voice of Justice, often headlined accounts of especially heinous criminals committing yet more violence while on parole.

Lychner wrote a monthly column rallying her troops. Andy Kahan contributed articles, too. Both wrote with lots of "!" and even "!!!" The group campaigned with a near-religious fervor.

One major achievement was passage of the Pam Lychner Law, a federal statute requiring registration of convicted sex offenders. JFA gained national attention in 1996 when a child molester who was up for mandatory release volunteered to be castrated, saying he would molest again unless his testicles were lopped off.

JFA raised $3,000 for the castration, but no doctor could be found to perform the procedure. He got out and molested again. By law, castration is now available free of charge to any twice-convicted sex offender with a child victim. And the prison mandatory release program has been shelved.

In 1996, Lychner and her two daughters were killed in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island. By then, Justice For All had about 3,000 members. Within a year of Lychner's death, a life-size bronze was dedicated at Town Hall Park, near her Spring Valley home.

By the time of her death, Lychner had eased out of the JFA forefront and Clements had assumed the leadership. Under her helm, JFA has generally become known as the group that pushes for the longest sentences, toughest laws, fewest appeals and fastest executions -- all in the name of crime victims.

The man who does much of that advocating, vice president Rusty Hubbarth, is an attorney who once worked for the state's parole division. The ex-marine is not a crime victim. There are some -- admittedly a minority -- in the movement who now resent nonvictims' testifying in their name or claiming to represent them.

In particular, a growing number of victims are opposed to the death penalty, a stance that is often met with hostility.

Kate Lowenstein is the national organizer for MVFR, which is against executions. She says, "I've actually had people come up to me after I've spoken at conferences and say, 'You must not have loved your father very much.' "

Her father, a former New York congressman, was murdered in 1980 by a deranged ex-student. The defendant pleaded insanity, was ordered into a psychiatric unit and was released in 2000 despite family objections.

Hubbarth might point to Lowenstein's case as Exhibit A in arguing for the death penalty. But she says that while she opposed the decision in the case, she does not oppose the process.

MVFR believes there is discrimination against victims who do not agree with prosecutors' goals, especially when it comes to the death penalty. They point to a 1999 Nebraska court ruling that seems to defy basic definitions.

Nebraska law says that a victim will be granted an opportunity to appear before the parole board. But when a Nebraska victim's family asked to appear in support of clemency, the board said no.

The case went to Nebraska's highest court, which reached this conclusion: Victims who testify for the defendant are not legally victims. MVFR argues that truncated versions of that attitude prevail in criminal justice offices all over the nation. In arguing that, the group points to one prominent case in Houston this year: the murder trial of Andrea Yates. Even though his five children were drowned by his wife, husband Rusty Yates was not really treated like a victim.

Amy Smith's Harris County Victim Witness Program faced a dilemma with Rusty Yates. Yes, all of his children had been deliberately drowned, and his wife was on trial for her life. But Yates had sided with the defense and, Smith says, "That's where we draw the line."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets