Longform

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

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"They just cut us off at the knees," Morton says.

One district's grant evaluator informed Morton by e-mail that her boardmembers "were not comfortable funding a significant portion of your salary because of the understanding that your activities as director of FOHVAMP involve lobbying, which grant funds cannot support." In response, Morton pointed out that all of his group's legislative lobbying on the death-penalty bill had been paid for by a foundation out of San Francisco.

"We did not use one dollar of VALE funds," he says. "We were legitimately doing what nonprofits do, and we were doing it with funds furnished by the Tides Foundation's death-penalty mobilization fund."

Maureen Cain believes that FOHVAMP was singled out for punishment because it had dared to take a public position contrary to that of the district attorneys and COVA. "Because they supported abolition, they became the stepchild of the victim groups," she says.

Morton is more diplomatic. "Perhaps there's some anger on the part of some VALE boardmembers that we're growing so fast," he suggests. "I think some people are getting embarrassed by the amount of unsolved homicides in Colorado."

The official victim lobby proved to be a formidable foe in another pitched battle this past legislative session, involving a cause dear to prison reformers: juveniles convicted of murder in adult court and sentenced to life without parole [LWOP]. As of 2009 Colorado had 48 such cases — more than Utah, Arizona and Wyoming combined, but considerably fewer than Pennsylvania (444) or Louisiana (335). In 2006 the state changed the mandatory sentence for juveniles facing life to allow for parole eligibility after serving forty years. The law wasn't retroactive, though, so it had no impact on the existing LWOP population.

For the past several years, juvenile-justice groups — notably the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation, which has been active in campaigning against LWOP measures nationwide — have urged lawmakers to consider extending a forty-year parole window for the current lifers, too. A 2011 House bill would have done just that, but prosecutors and COVA worked strenuously to defeat it. Lewis and others urged victims to "deluge" Crisanta Duran, a freshman state representative, with phone calls and e-mails opposing the bill. It died in committee 6-5, with Duran the swing vote.

In her "Urgent Call to Action" messages, Lewis described the bill as a "sneak attack" that had been presented in violation of the notification provisions of the Victim Rights Act. "Victims' families who would have been directly affected by this legislation were NOT notified of the hearing," she wrote. "Victims who could not come raised objections to the violations of their constitutional rights to be notified and heard.

"Some of the offenders that this legislation would offer early release to are cop-killers...others killed their whole families. One of the offenders — Erik Jensen — comes from a wealthy family. He threatened his parents that if they did not get him out of prison in ten years, he would kill himself. They have sunk everything into creating the Pendulum Foundation, which is focused just on getting him out.

"We who have seen the horror of murder have to be stronger and louder now than those who work to free these killers and to deliberately re-traumatize the families of murder victims."

Mary Ellen Johnson, Pendulum's executive director, replied to Lewis's scorching e-mail with one of her own, saying that COVA's broadside was "filled with erroneous information, and in at least one case, an outright lie." It wasn't Pendulum's duty to notify crime victims of pending legislation, she pointed out; if anyone had that obligation, it was the district attorneys and COVA itself. The bill's supporters weren't advocating "early release" of all the lifers convicted as juveniles, either. As for Jensen, he "never threatened his parents or uttered any of the rest of your nonsense.... Furthermore, the Pendulum Foundation was never created solely to get the Jensens' son out."

While Jensen's parents supplied major support to launch Pendulum, the nonprofit has since developed other large donors, Johnson says. She insists that not all victim groups opposed the LWOP reform bill — but the victims who supported it evidently don't speak for COVA or vice versa. "They tried to paint us as being very sneaky," she says. "The fact is, there had been a lot of communication between the bill's sponsors and the DAs."

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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