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.
In Ohio in 1978, Bob and Charlotte Hullinger began a support group called Parents of Murdered Children in the aftermath of the killing of their daughter. Candy Lightener, who established Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in 1980, had a daughter who was killed in California by a motorist with a history of driving under the influence. In Virginia, Marie Deans founded MVFR in 1976, after the slaying of her mother-in-law. Their purpose was twofold: to support one another in their grief, and to become involved in a justice system that seemed to have little use for them.
The victims' rights movement has been wildly successful. Every state now has statutes defining victims' rights. Laws got tougher, crime rates dropped, and the incarceration rate soared. The '90s saw Texas embark on the largest prison-building project in the history of the world. Victims' rights groups had much to do with that.
Vera Cronin of Gulf Area MADD remembers that when her son was killed in 1979 by a driver who'd been drinking, the penalty for a DWI was usually a night in jail. Drunk driving fatalities were generally treated as mere accidents. The motorist who hit Cronin's son was not prosecuted.
Through education and activism, MADD altered public perception and the laws against drunk driving. Its success formed the blueprint for how victims' rights groups could effect change.
Walk into any courthouse where an intoxication manslaughter or assault is being tried, and there's likely to be a MADD member there with the victim. They will have met with law enforcement and prosecutors about the case. Judges know they're watching.
There are lots of people looking out for victims today. Amy Smith has been director of the Harris County Victim Witness Program for five years. Her department is praised by local victims' groups.
"My job," says Smith, "is to make sure we comply with everything in Article 56, the victims' bill of rights." Smith's division functions as a buffer between victims and the court. Each month her six-person staff mails an "impact statement" to 2,000 new crime victims.
Smith's crew makes sure calls and questions get answered, and that victims are kept abreast of court dates. Her department has a comfortable waiting room in the courthouse, and they can even contact victims' bosses to explain why they need time off.
These advocates help fill out forms for victims' compensation, and they make referrals to social agencies and support groups. If property was taken, Smith's office can get it returned. They can even sit through the trial with victims.
Smith's office can't get involved until charges are filed, but the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Department each have victims' liaisons to provide earlier assistance if needed. The city has a victims' advocate, Andy Kahan, and the prison system has a division to help deal with paroles, executions and other victim-related prison issues.
None of this existed 25 years ago. It resulted from people like the Hullingers, Renny Cushing, Dianne Marino, Candy Lightener and thousands of other crime victims who created a grassroots crusade to force change. Victims' rights are now stronger than ever, but few victims believe they are strong enough. As the fundamental reforms have been achieved, the next battlefields for the movement become far less certain.
A proposed constitutional amendment would put victims' rights on par with those of defendants. It enjoys broad support, but some domestic violence organizations will not endorse it because of cases where a woman attacks her batterer; the question of who the victim is becomes muddled in those situations. MVFR is insisting on a provision prohibiting discrimination against victims who oppose the death penalty.
There is not wide agreement on the exact direction and scope for the movement. Many of the original activists are retired. Others no longer feel a part of what they created. Lightener, for example, has testified against MADD in hearings about lowering intoxication levels for DUI offenses.
There is also a squabble over the death penalty between MVFR and Justice For All, and a low grumbling that the movement is being co-opted by nonvictims. POMC's executive director is not a crime victim. Some advocates are in dispute about whether Justice For All president Dianne Clements fits the definition of a true victim of a crime. News reports said the death of her 13-year-old son, Zachary, was ruled accidental -- that during a game of hide-and-seek with toy weapons in 1991, a playmate shot him with what he thought was an unloaded shotgun. Clements said in a Houston Chronicle article that through her persistence with prosecutors, the playmate was charged with negligent homicide, convicted in juvenile court and put on one year's probation.
Clements went on to form ZAK, Zero Accidental Killings, a group that gained an ordinance making adult gun owners liable for the actions of kids who used their weapons. But her most effective influence would come under the flag of Houston's Justice For All.
Justice For All is generally considered to be the angriest victims' rights group on the block. It's a relative newcomer, but what it lacks in experience it more than makes up for in political stroke. That is by design. JFA was perhaps a new kind of victims' group, one that views legislative achievement as the end goal.
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.
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."
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?"
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."
(Clements and Kahan, saying they believed the Houston Press is biased, refused to be interviewed for this article. See "About the Author.")
University of Houston law professor David Dow sees the hard-line execution position as a major problem with Justice For All. Dow is a director of the Innocence Project in Texas, a volunteer group that investigates convicts' claims of innocence.
JFA, says Dow, is "unwilling to be critical of the police or prosecutors, even in cases where they deserve to be criticized, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system makes mistakes."
Dow says wrongful convictions point out serious shortcomings that Justice For All refuses to acknowledge. "Justice For All people are mostly middle-class white folks who are never going to be put in the position of being wrongly accused."
He says that many of those exonerated -- by DNA results or other evidence -- are poor and black, and that Justice For All does not consider that the wrongly convicted are crime victims, too. Dow says they "tend to have a racist view that, well, the person may not have done this, but he did something else."
JFA representative Rusty Hubbarth, testifying to Texas legislators last year on a proposal for a moratorium on executions, was asked by one lawmaker, "Rusty, you're not in favor of executing innocent people, are you?"
"Not this week," Hubbarth joked.
The humor was probably lost on two men in attendance that day. Randall Adams and Kerry Cook had collectively spent more than a decade in prison for crimes they didn't commit -- they'd both come within hours of execution.
Nor would they likely find funny the T-shirts that some JFA members wear at conferences. The shirts feature a thuggish-looking brute, arms outstretched, lying on a gurney. The caption reads, "Stick it to 'em."
In 1997, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice renamed a prison in Humble after JFA founder Lychner, an honor normally reserved for law enforcement officers. That, and a bizarre prison tour incident, have some wondering just how deeply the group's reach extends.
Robert Fratta was sent to death row after his Harris County conviction in 1996 for arranging the murder of his wife. In June 2000, he looked up from inside his high-security prison cell at a startling sight: Staring back at him through his cell window were Lex and Betty Baquer, the parents of his murdered wife. Accompanying them was what looked like a lynch mob, Fratta says.
The convict says Betty Baquer pursed her lips as if to spit on him, which he avoided by moving to the side. Fratta claims the tour group taunted and harassed him.
While Hollywood has depicted similar dramatic confrontations, in reality they are virtually nonexistent -- such encounters are serious violations of prison security and TDCJ policy.
It's unclear just how the Baquers got to Fratta's cell, but someone knew exactly what he or she was doing. Another woman who has toured death row notes that the only stairway to Fratta's second-floor cell is through a locked door. Fratta says a guard led the Justice For All group straight to him; prison officials say the guard was distracted by JFA members while others sneaked away to Fratta's cell.
TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd says the incident "is unacceptable on our part. It's unfortunate, and we don't tolerate it."
Death row tours have since been canceled, although JFA in its January 1996 newsletter rejoiced about an earlier prison tour that included state District Judge Jan Krocker. On that tour, JFA member Bob Corriera got to confront his daughter's killer, Rex Mays, who was recently executed.
Critics of JFA point to these incidents, the tasteless T-shirts and the seemingly casual disregard for the wrongly accused as indicative of the group's mind-set. The most common criticism is that they are so tightly wound in anger and revenge that they do themselves, and others, more harm than good.
Psychologist David Doerfler, a crime victim who worked in TDCJ's Victim Services for eight years, says that some victims' groups "are extremely vindictive, very adversarial, and will not allow for the variance of other victims who choose not to respond aggressively or violently. I don't mean physically, but forcing themselves and their opinions on others."
When it comes to spreading the gospel of Justice For All, the group's best ambassador has to be the well-positioned Andy Kahan.
In his publicly funded role as the city's crime victims' advocate, Kahan is the first in line to extend help to many new victims. Houston police even carry his official city business card to hand out to those they meet who have been harmed by criminals.
He qualifies for the job in part by being a crime victim himself. Kahan told the Houston Chronicle that he dressed as a chicken and sang to make extra money as a college student in 1981. While dressed as that chicken, he said, a crowd of drunks beat him and put a gun to his head.
His job duties are typical of victims' advocates: He expedites services and compensation for victims, acts as a city liaison for crime prevention and victims' groups, works with organizations to achieve reforms in the justice system, monitors statistics to make sure Houston is not a "dumping ground" for parolees and provides other help. Kahan has discretion on referrals of victims to various advocacy groups, and his close ties to JFA make some wonder if -- as JFA's victims' group coordinator -- he doubles as the prime recruiter for the organization.
Ray Hill, an ex-convict, inmate rights advocate and host of KPFT's The Prison Show is blunt: "Andy is the man behind the curtain. He runs Justice For All for free from a city-paid office Andy keeps them in fresh victims."
Hill says he has known Kahan since the late '80s, when Kahan was a parole officer and sometime contributor to Hill's radio show. Hill and Jack Beal, a parole officer who worked with Kahan, say that Kahan was involved in a dispute over his expense reporting before he left his job in 1990.
After a stint with the county's probation department, Kahan became the city's first victims' advocate in 1992. A member of mayor Bob Lanier's staff, who praised Kahan for his passionate advocacy for victims, said the new administration ordered a review of the earlier allegations regarding Kahan's parole office expense reports. They were determined not to be a detriment to hiring him as the city's advocate, the former staffer said.
Problems later surfaced for Kahan in 1996, when a crime victim who had been a victims' group volunteer came forward to complain about his conduct. In a sworn affidavit, the woman said that in 1994, Kahan met her in his official capacity, recruited her into JFA and told her she should speak publicly about her experience as a sexual assault victim. Her statement says he invited her to a victims' conference in Austin, but told her when they arrived that the city would pay for only one hotel room for both of them. She didn't have the money for a separate room. During the night, she submitted to his sexual advances, her affidavit said.
The city refused an open records request from the Press on the investigation, but a letter from the city attorney's office asked for a state attorney general's opinion on the release of documents. The letter stated in part that "subsequent allegations of sexual assault surfaced," but there were no charges filed.
When the incident became public in 1998, a mayoral spokesman said an investigation concluded that no crimes had been committed, although there was misconduct and Lanier had "dealt with it sternly."
One of those leaping to Kahan's defense was JFA's Clements, who was reported in the media to be dismissing the victim advocate's actions with a crime victim as nothing more than "consensual sex."
Kahan's former boss says that a number of other crime victims complained about Kahan for the way he operated his city office, and for an alleged attitude about victims who indicated they were not interested in becoming members of Clements's Justice For All.
From 1998 until his retirement last June, Don Hollingsworth served as Mayor Lee Brown's director of public safety and drug policy, and was responsible for overseeing the city's victim advocate's office.
Hollingsworth and Brown were just assuming their positions when the scandal broke about Kahan's sex with the woman. Hollingsworth indicated that Brown considered replacing Kahan but knew JFA was influential. "Justice For All is a strong political endorsement -- I didn't really care because I'm not really political -- but there was the wind in the wave that said, you know, 'You can't treat this guy like this.' I felt that there were people protecting him."
Hollingsworth says Kahan was upset that the public safety director closely supervised him. Kahan also was ordered to get prior approval for any public statements.
"We opposed him going down to Huntsville to do the executions -- not to accompany the victim's family and support them, but getting in front of the cameras there. Sometimes he wouldn't even identify himself as the mayor's advocate, but just as 'victim advocate Andy Kahan.' There's some taxpayers who don't agree with his position on the death penalty, and we didn't want him taking a stand publicly."
Hollingsworth says he found out that Kahan focused on high-profile cases and devoted less attention to victims of crimes that didn't attract publicity. Material supplied by Kahan lists his accomplishments on behalf of victims and says his office has "received national recognition on television and news shows" such as CNN, 48 Hours, The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, Court TV and 20/20. "He's self-promoting. He saw himself as a national figure," Hollingsworth says. "He was more about Andy than the mayor or Houston."
And some minority victims complained that Kahan didn't much care about their problems, his former boss says. "The sense that I got was that he was only advocating for those people who were in line with the Justice For All philosophy." Hollingsworth says he counseled Kahan on several occasions and formally reprimanded him once.
As part of his job, Kahan also appears before the parole board to protest the release of some criminals. Bill Habern, an attorney who specializes in parole matters, says Kahan will "stir up a cloud of dust." However, he believes Kahan is largely ineffective in parole matters because he'll use unverified hearsay reports and rumors. "He'll cause more harm than good because it makes him look ridiculous," Habern says. "He's one of those guys that's got a big hat and no cows."
Oliver Spellman, who took Hollingsworth's position as Kahan's acting supervisor a few months ago, says his oversight of Kahan is no different from that with any other city employee. "Andy gets rave reviews from a lot of people," and he has a tough job dealing with a sensitive group of people, Spellman says.
"I'm sure there could be concern that he advocates stronger for Justice For All than he does for other groups," Spellman says. "We just have to make sure that Justice For All is not dominating his activities."
Spellman points out that Kahan serves on boards or committees of several victim organizations such as Parents of Murdered Children and the county's Inter-Agency Victims Council.
However, the other groups are hardly political activists -- none of them had ever campaigned the way Justice For All did in the last election season.
Justice For All is actually a three-armed effort that includes a political action committee of its own and the Justice For All Alliance.
The alliance is the part that works with victims. It just received a grant of $65,000 from the governor's office to have crime victims' statements filmed professionally so that they can protest paroles, even until death. Another $104,000 has been requested to continue the project.
Justice For All and its PAC can't receive such grants. The alliance has a separate accounting and a separate phone line, but it's Clements's voice on all answering machines. And it's her voice that many officeholders -- particularly judges and legislators -- fear, especially on the campaign trail.
Gary Polland found out about the wrath of JFA when he left his six-year chairmanship of the county GOP to run for the state senate. Polland says he went in for an endorsement screening session at JFA last year. Present were Clements, Hubbarth and Kim Ogg, a JFA board member who worked with Kahan at City Hall.
Polland says he agreed with virtually everything the group advocated, even knowing the strong JFA ties of his Republican primary election opponent, Kyle Janek. "I thought we had a real good session. They didn't endorse me, but in a race like that, often you go with what you know."
Months later, the candidate was stunned to see some of the most vicious campaign attack ads ever -- JFA-coordinated assaults targeting him. Among them was a radio commercial about his appellate brief filed for a sex offender:
"Veteran police and child abuse counselors are moved to tears, Gary Polland is moved to greed. He takes taxpayer money to represent this monster."
"It was horrible," says Polland. "I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'What did I do to deserve this?' " He notes that Republican judges had asked him to handle some appeals, and he'd accepted.
Polland says only about 10 percent of his legal practice is criminal defense work, yet Justice For All portrayed the conservative "as somehow being hostile to law enforcement, hostile to victims and pro-criminal because, as part of my practice, I had represented people accused of committing crimes."
Some mailouts and TV ads even featured photos of his clients who were black. "I showed this to friends around the country and they called it the Texas equivalent of the Willie Horton attack. It was racist, absolutely."
The onslaught succeeded, turning a close race into a rout. "They just annihilated me," says Polland. He believes the group is sending a message to attorneys with political aspirations: Don't ever represent controversial criminal defendants.
Polland notes that the ads had nothing to do with crime victims. "Victims' rights?" Polland laughs. "I'm a victim of Justice For All."
Some political veterans believe the JFA-inspired butchering of the GOP's former county chairman will be a sore spot in the party for years and that the backlash could cost Janek in the general election.
In Austin, at least a few legislators also tell of growing weary of what they call grandstanding by JFA's Rusty Hubbarth. "The best way to get a bill defeated is to have Justice For All support it," says one insider. "You get things done by talking to people and building coalitions."
Justice For All has tried to expand nationally, but membership seems to be stalled at around 4,000, nearly all of it local. Some veterans in the victims' rights community are critical of Kahan and Clements but do not want to be quoted on the record. Justice For All still walks tall in Houston, and leaders can carry a big stick for critics.
One complaint is that JFA goes over the line. Law professor Dow says the group's credibility is lacking. "My basic view is that organizations have an obligation to be faithful to the truth."
Skeptics wonder if the group is past its prime. "The whole concept of Justice For All was that there was this carelessly liberal law enforcement and judicial branch," JFA critic Ray Hill says. "If that situation ever existed, it certainly doesn't anymore. Go down to the Harris County Courthouse and find me a lenient prosecutor or judge. You can't."
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Polland, who refers to Andy Kahan as a "sleazeball," says some JFA members told him they regretted the brutal campaign ads. "This is what happens when people get involved with these organizations who don't have the best interests of the organization at heart," Polland believes. "Justice For All started out as a group with noble goals, and it's been subverted."
Psychologist Doerfler says victim support groups serve a wonderful purpose, especially in the beginning, "but sometimes they just get stuck. When we are afraid or continue to feel pain, we have a tendency to want to control -- not only ourselves but others. I think at that point that people start verging from something that is an attempt to reorder their lives to something that's maladaptive and pathological."
Kate Lowenstein of Murder Victims For Reconciliation points out that her group and JFA concur on most issues, so she wonders why Clements can't just agree to disagree on capital punishment. Lowenstein says that testifying at a hearing for her father's killer was a horrible experience, and she understands the anger that drives Justice For All.
"We're not heroes or better people or anything like that," says Lowenstein. "How we're handling this isn't any better -- it's not the right way, but it's a way that needs to be respected."