Okalhoma City_The rights of criminal defendants are spelled out by law, but rights of crime victims may not be so clear. For the twelfth year in a row, many victims and their families gathered at the Oklahoma Capitol on Wednesday to fight for more rights in the courtroom, and better protection for Oklahomans in their everyday lives.
Lawmakers say their efforts have helped close loop holes in laws, and forced judges and jurors to hear victims' voices. Most victims of crime feel as if it's their duty to look out for others since the last thing they want is for someone else to meet their same fate. They say they have been through so much, that they don't want anyone else to be murdered, raped or abused.
John Slate's baby girl died after her mother left her in a bathtub in 2006, and the Duncan resident has been on a mission since. Last year, he helped redefine the definition of child neglect in Oklahoma. Slate says with laws such as Letha's Law, Demarion's Law, and the Kelsey Briggs Child Abuse Prevention Act, he thinks Oklahoma has come a long way. He says he hopes these law changes will lead to fewer victims. However, he is also fighting for those not so fortunate.
Slate says it can be unfair for victims who testify. "I was not allowed in the court room," he says. "There were things I was not allowed to do, things I was not allowed to talk about. I felt like I was the criminal. It seems like, in our criminal justice system, defendants have all the rights."
District Attorney Bret Burns says the same is true at the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals where victims go unheard. It's the same court that overturned the death sentence of convicted Oklahoma Highway Patrol murderer Ricky Ray Malone. "Victims have voices," says Burns. "They re emotional, they re passionate. They've lost a loved one, and I don t think a sentence should be reversed because they cry on the stand or show emotion."
Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins remembers her days on the bench, when the rights of victims was a relatively new concept in Oklahoma. She says communication - or lack thereof - between prosecutors and victims, is by and large the complaint she hears the most. However, she says victim witness coordinators have helped a lot. "[They are] letting the victims know what stages are happening in the criminal proceedings, and letting them know what that the DAs thought process is," says Askins.