Longform

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

Page 5 of 8

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.

With the aid of volunteers, FOHVAMP created a statewide database of unsolved homicides; it turns out that three out of ten murders in Colorado are never prosecuted. The total number of unsolved killings in the state now stands at more than 1,500, by Morton's count, and is growing by 3 percent each year. His group pushed for a state team of specially trained investigators to tackle the backlog, but state officials claimed there was no money for such an undertaking ("A Cure for the Common Cold Case," February 14, 2008). Instead, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation managed to fund one position for a crime analyst to maintain an official database of cold cases.

That wasn't nearly enough for FOHVAMP. In 2009, the group backed a bill by Paul Weissmann, the House majority leader, that would have funded cold-case investigations by abolishing the death penalty. Colorado has executed only one person in the past four decades, and Weissmann argued that the millions of dollars a year the state spends on the seemingly endless appeals process could be better directed to putting more killers behind bars.

District attorneys denounced the bill, describing it as a divide-and-conquer strategy. COVA and the Department of Public Safety also opposed it, while Morton found himself in an odd alliance with the ACLU, the criminal defense bar and other so-called offender advocates in lobbying for it. But he insists FOHVAMP was simply interested in getting cold cases reopened, not the larger ideological debate involved.

"We're not one side or the other on the death penalty," he says. "We just don't have the investigators we need to address this problem."

The bill squeaked through the House and was narrowly defeated in the Senate. "It came within one vote of passing both houses," Morton sighs.

The defeat hasn't deterred FOHVAMP from keeping pressure on the unsolved-homicide issue. In 2010 a group of 26 law enforcement professionals — including a medical examiner, a crime lab specialist, several homicide detectives and an FBI behavioral analyst — began meeting quarterly on a voluntary basis to review cold cases statewide. When Morton learned that the group had cut its meetings from two days to one and had only reviewed five cases in a year, he urged his members to "ask the head of investigations for your loved one's case to present it to this team of experts." The review team has since seen its requests for review rise dramatically — again making the argument for a full-time squad of investigators.

Yet FOHVAMP's decision to break ranks from the "official" victim stance on the death penalty wasn't without some blowback. After the legislative brawl in 2009, Morton found the local VALE funds he relied on for some of his group's operating budget had been slashed. The VALE board in the Colorado Springs judicial district, which had provided FOHVAMP with up to $10,000 a year, refused to provide any additional funds for the next two years. Arapahoe County's board, which had provided $18,950 for four years running, trimmed its contribution to $10,000. Jefferson County, which had supplied $18,500 in the past, cut back to $10,000, then $8,000. And the Jeffco board specifically limited its contribution to Morton's $36,000 annual salary to $800, when it had previously paid $5,600 for that purpose.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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