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.

Suzanne Meiers, a Houston police victims' advocate, had helped Yates with the paperwork to apply for burial expenses for his children. But the assistance stopped there. "I don't even know who Amy Smith is," Yates says. "That should tell you something."

Smith says that it was up to Yates to return the impact statement requesting services, a form Yates doesn't believe he ever received. "As far as I know, I never got anything from the D.A.'s office except a subpoena."

Yates found himself in a position similar to that of victims in years past. He learned through the media that prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty against his wife, and even the program's waiting room for victims was off-limits to him. "I ducked in there one day," says Yates, "and this woman looked at me very sternly and said, 'This room is for prosecution victims and witnesses.' Prosecution victims? What is that?"

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.

Yates is "not the only 'quote unquote' victim we did not let wait in there," Smith says. Similar scenarios occur when domestic violence victims don't want their batterers prosecuted. "When you're talking about a family homicide, yes, a lot of times those victims are going to be torn between supporting the defendant and supporting the victim," Smith says. "It's not that they get treated any differently, it's that they get treated as if they're not cooperating with the D.A.'s office."

A main point of MVFR's complaint is that a victim is a victim, period. They say Smith's office should not have been concerned with whether Yates cooperated, but only with the reality that his children had been murdered.

Texas law does not specify that a victim must cooperate with the prosecution to receive services. But, Smith says, "it's been implied that you need to cooperate." She says intense media coverage of the Yates trial put a strain on the court and her office, both of which were in temporary quarters because of last year's flood.

Yates is more upset with the treatment of his family during the trial. He and his aunt, Fairy Caroland, say state District Judge Belinda Hill denied their request for reserved seating in the trial, while saving scores of seats for members of the media and others.

Andrea Yates's relatives had to fight with the rest of the general public for the limited remaining seats. Caroland even says a woman pushed her as the aunt tried to save seats for her family during a recess. A bailiff intervened and Hill reportedly warned Yates's attorneys that another incident would get the defendant's relatives banned from the trial. Hill did not return calls for comment.

MVFR says such ordeals show victims' advocacy offices should be set up independently from prosecutors' offices. Smith says such an arrangement would be self-defeating, denying victims the access her office enjoys as a division of the district attorney's office.

Caroland believes the Yates case shows the obvious conflicts of interest when a district attorney controls the provision of victims' services. "If our family had wanted Andrea to be put to death," she says, "not only would they have guaranteed us seats, they would have flown us in and put us up in a hotel."

While the Yates family had to fight to attend Andrea's trial, Caroland says another spectator -- Dianne Clements of Justice For All -- never seemed to have problems finding a seat. "Here was someone the prosecutors just loved," Caroland says.

The family had decried District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's decision to make it a death penalty case (Yates ultimately received a life prison term); Clements regularly told reporters that the mother deserved to be executed.

Justice For All acts as a sort of death penalty booster club. Its Web site features a calendar of executions and links to a site called prodeathpenalty.com. There is plenty to cheer about. Harris County juries assess the death penalty far more than any other in the nation.

At the Nashville victims' conference, Clements excoriated MVFR for taking a stand on the death penalty. According to MVFR's Jennifer Bishop, Clements said JFA takes no position -- a statement that floored Bishop, who has publicly debated representatives of the group at other forums.

Bishop says she had strange encounters with another Justice For All member at two conferences in August. She says Andy Kahan angrily confronted her and "without even introducing himself, said, 'Do you or do you not require your members to be against the death penalty?' "

Bishop said they didn't, and then she asked Kahan about reports that he required victims to favor the death penalty before his city office would assist them. Kahan denied that, she said, but added that his office had never had a victim who opposed capital punishment. Bishop told Kahan that his high-profile advocacy of the death penalty could be intimidating those with different views from asking his office for help.

She related the conversation at the Nashville workshop, and says Kahan scolded her for divulging what he considered to be a private conversation. "He was very aggressive, and it really made me uncomfortable."

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