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Howard Morton calls Lewis "a good gal" but believes COVA's priorities reflect the composition of its board. "Most of the board, and certainly most of the executive committee, is made up of DAs or employees of DAs," he says. "Where your paycheck comes from influences you a lot."

Morton's group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, has its share of disputes with prosecutors and law enforcement, particularly over the amount of resources allocated to unsolved murder cases. "Quite a few of our members are upset with district attorneys who would not prosecute their cases and left them to remain cold," he notes. When Colorado voters considered an exemption from term limits for district attorneys a few years ago, COVA came out for the measure. Morton opposed it, and wrote what he calls "a very strong letter" to Lewis asking how the board could take such a position without consulting the organization's membership.

Lewis laments that term limits ever passed. "My belief — and this is my belief, not a COVA belief — is that with term limits at the legislature and for district attorneys and even some sheriffs, we have seen a real erosion of people who understand victims' rights," she says.

As for her board of directors being stacked with prosecutors and cops, Lewis says the board includes crime victims, too. "They don't wear something on their forehead that says 'I'm a victim,'" she notes. "Most of them do come out of law enforcement, but our concerns are not system-driven. I think we have parted company with the DAs several times."

To critics like Cain, though, COVA appears to be an unofficial lobbying arm for state prosecutors. "Is it appropriate," she asks, "for this organization, which is really a district attorneys' organization, to get all this money and hire a lobbyist and claim to be an independent group?"

Only a "very, very, very tiny part of our budget" goes to lobbying efforts, Lewis says, and prosecutors scoff at the idea that COVA is a front for their own agenda. Still, the nonprofit and the district attorneys' council often seem to speak with one voice in the legislature — even if, behind the scenes, victims and prosecutors frequently disagree about plea bargains and sentencing options, how vigorously cases are investigated or developed, and other issues.

The fact that prosecutors often claim to represent victims or "speak" for them in legislative matters troubles Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett. "Advocating for victims is very much a part of the role of the district attorney," says Garnett. "However, district attorneys are not lawyers for victims. Our job is to seek justice and do the right thing in individual cases, and that sometimes means we approve a resolution to a case that the victim doesn't want. We all run across victims who are motivated by personal revenge and other motives that are improper. Victims need to be heard, but they don't control the process."

The same goes for sentencing reform and other legislative battles, he adds. "There are a lot of groups that have emerged that do nothing but be a voice for victims," he says. "That's not the role we should play in legislation."

Cain and others have suggested that the apparent muddling of roles could be addressed if the control of VALE funds were shifted from the judicial branch and the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Human Services. Garnett, though, thinks adding another state agency to the mix would only delay the delivery of services to crime victims and the groups that represent them.

"I don't think that would be an improvement," he says.

******

Criminologists often describe families of the victims of violent crimes as "co-victims." The reasoning is simple: Although they didn't suffer the crime themselves, they also were victimized, and the ongoing loss and trauma can alter their lives forever.

Last month, on the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, state representative Rhonda Fields addressed a grieving gathering of co-victims outside the Denver courthouse. Fields spoke of "my crime," and how it had changed her into a victim advocate and prompted her to run for public office. Technically, it was a crime against her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, who were gunned down in Aurora in 2005 shortly before Javad was expected to testify as a witness to another murder; the men convicted of the killings, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, are now on death row. But her audience knew exactly what Fields meant.

"We all experience grief very differently," Fields said. "Some of us are still angry, and some of us are in deep depression...but we don't stand alone in our grief. Your pain is my pain."

Like Fields, some co-victims find at least a degree of closure in seeing the perpetrators caught and convicted. Others, though, have to contend with a crime that's never solved, punished or explained. It's that kind of pain that has been the driving force behind Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, and that led Morton and his members to an unusual gambit in the state legislature two years ago — one that demonstrated that the victim movement is far from monolithic in its goals and intentions.

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7 comments
Guest
Guest

Some good points in here but the reporting is pretty one-sided.

For instance: Why no mention of the fact that the while COVA was urging their supporters to contact Rep. Duran and ask her to vote against HB 1287 the Pendulum Foundation was making the exact same plea to their supporters to get Rep. Duran to change her vote?

Also, you point out COVA's lobbying efforts several times but I didn't see any mention of the fact that the Pendulum Foundation is a client of J. William Artist & Associates, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Colorado.

I freely admit my bias - a family member was killed by one of the men whose sentence would have been retroactively reduced under HB 1287 - but if you're going to claim objectivity in your reporting, you should at least make an effort to not let your bias color the story.

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print Letters to the Editor section -- ideally with your full name/town. Let me know if that's okay at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

JusticeForAll
JusticeForAll

COVA has always been a direct arm of law enforcement and is so disconnected from the needs and voices of victims they claim to represent. They are far too systems oriented and it is abhorrent that money that VALE takes from direct service agencies is being given to COVA through the nepotism of personal relationships that exist between Nancy Lewis and her hand-picked board of directors.

On Fire
On Fire

Okay. Apparently COVA sees some victims as worth helping and others as not. The victims worth helping include abusive parents and the poor feeble prosecutors who are just trying to build political careers on the backs of abused children. The victims not worth helping are abused children themselves. Got it.

TruthSeeker
TruthSeeker

This was an amazing story. It's finally time that people started taking a look at the money trail of these organizations, especially COVA. They've been in the pockets of the systems-based agencies for years and get money funneled to them for their support. It's no accident that the Denver VALE administrator and co-administrator both serve on COVA's board and routinely take money away from direct-service agencies and hand it over to COVA. They do not speak for victims and I applaud the many agencies who have stood up to COVA to truly speak for their clients. Many of those folks have had their funding taken away by COVA's board members, who handle so much of the victim services funds in Colorado. Shame on COVA.

Catherine
Catherine

Thank you, Mr. Prendergast, for a very enlightening and in-depth story. Also, thank you to Mr. Lee for trying to find an outside the box solution to crime and community healing. The program might need finesse, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction. I hope that other Coloradoans support the measure. Catherine Keske.

Maryellen
Maryellen

Advocates for changing sentencing laws for juveniles serving life have always acknowledged that this issue is extremely complicated. There is no denying the pain of the victims and we advocates for sentencing reform have never done so. However in the past when we tried to introduce changes in the laws, we have been summarily dismissed by COVA and many district attorneys. "No, no, no." "The system is just fine the way it is." Our experience has been similar to Rep. Lee's. One year when we wrote voluntary restorative justice language into a bill, victims groups opposed it saying, "It has to be voluntary." When we pointed out that the provision WAS voluntary, they ignored the wording, pretending that it didn't say precisely what it DID say. No compromise, no changes are needed, regardless of evolving public opinion, scientific advances in the area of teen brain development, studies showing that juveniles receive harsher sentences than adults for the same crimes, and recent supreme court rulings.

We have enough obstreperousness on a national level. We in Colorado must be more thoughtful than that.

Kudos to Alan Prendergrast for a fresh look at a difficult issue. Victims are not a monolithic group and victims' rights groups, such as COVA, would be well served to expand their vision to include more restorative justice and to listen to the voices of victims who seek a measure of redemption and rehabilitation for offenders rather than endless punishment.

Somewhere amid all this pain and destruction there are areas of agreement and healing. I hope Alan's article and Rep. Pete Lee's legislation will be a step in that direction.Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive DirectorThe Pendulum Foundation

 
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