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How victim rights became a juggernaut shaping spending, laws and the future of punishment

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The convoluted chain of financial relationships and shared agendas hasn't gone unnoticed among other criminal-justice interest groups. Critics charge that the victim-rights movement has become too closely allied with government to serve its diverse constituency. "COVA has always been very clear that their mission is retribution and punishment," says Maureen Cain, policy coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. "But victims come in all perspectives. A lot of times they want to prosecute to the full extent of the law, but sometimes they're counseled into that position.

"COVA's position has always been driven by the district attorneys," Cain continues. "Their boardmembers are overwhelmingly district attorneys and law enforcement. You almost don't have to talk to COVA [about legislation], because they're just going to do what the DAs tell them to do."

Lewis says her group and prosecutors argue frequently about policy and legislation — but not in public. "Our philosophy is, in legislation and funding and programs, to try to have consensus with folks," she explains. "If we have a disagreement, we have it behind closed doors. It isn't like the press would ever know about it."

It's not exactly shocking that COVA would clash with the defense bar — or other "offender advocates," as those pushing sentencing reform are labeled by the victim-rights movement. But there have also been memorable disputes between COVA and other victim groups, over issues ranging from the death penalty to restorative justice.

"COVA is very good at giving victim assistance to victims," says Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, which began as a gathering of eleven grieving family members in 2001; this month, it marks its tenth anniversary, with a membership now at 1,100. "But when COVA gets into the political arena, then we sometimes find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence."

Who speaks for crime victims in Colorado? The answer is complicated, as Representative Lee discovered when he went about clarifying HB 1032 to satisfy COVA and the district attorneys. (Passed last spring, the revised bill leaves no doubt as to who's in charge of the restorative-justice process: The phrases "victim-initiated," "requested by the victim" and "victim-centered" appear a total of thirteen times in the final version.)

"I think COVA represents some victims," Lee says carefully. "I don't think it represents all victims."

Then he quickly adds, "Don't get me in trouble with COVA. I want to work with them."

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It's customary for lawyers and judges to pay lip service to the rights of victims in criminal cases. But only in the last three decades have victims achieved substantive rights and influence in the way crimes are prosecuted. Before that, being a crime victim was mainly about feeling powerless — losing your property, your peace of mind, your health, even a beloved child or parent or sibling or lover, without warning or any say in the matter at all. And that feeling of powerlessness often continued throughout the court process.

Joe Cannata remembers that feeling well. In 1987, his youngest daughter, Lynn, was stabbed to death in front of her two-year-old son. She was twenty and pregnant. The police suspected her boyfriend, but it was a couple of weeks before they could make the arrest.

"They had victim advocates in the DA's office, but their role wasn't well defined," Cannata recalls. "They were just starting to give out victim compensation. They gave the man who killed her $500 toward the burial, and he spent it on himself. After the trial, the judge actually apologized for having to give him such a harsh sentence. He didn't allow us to speak at all."

Lynn's boyfriend was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 24 years in prison. But that was hardly the end of it. The Colorado Court of Appeals tossed the sentence on technical grounds; the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated it. Under the sentencing scheme at the time, the man was eligible for parole after serving only a third of his time. Cannata learned how to negotiate the maze of parole hearings — even though his daughter's killer would often waive his hearing at the last minute, after Joe and his wife, Kaye, had driven hours to be there.

"The offender actually had control of the victim's life," Cannata says. "I didn't think he should have even been eligible for parole after only eight years."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast