Crime victims deserve our support

Published 3:00 am Thursday, April 6, 2017

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week in early April is an important time to recognize the issues facing victims of violent crime.  However, for those of us in law enforcement and those whose careers have been dedicated to seeking justice for individuals who have been harmed, a focus on victims is not a one week proposition.  They are our priority 365 days a year.

As a prosecutor for 16 years, I have seen first-hand the physical and emotional toll violent crime takes on victims and their families.  However, law enforcement, prosecutors and victim service providers are motivated because we can make a positive difference by supporting those who have been harmed. This year’s national theme of Strength, Resilience, Justice reflects a vision for our response to victims’ needs.

At the Attorney General’s Office, we play an essential role in making this vision a reality.  Statistics tell part of the story.  In 2016 alone, our Office of Victim Assistance handled over 1,200 inquiries from crime victims and their families.  We also assisted nearly 750 victims at Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles hearings.  Our Criminal Appeals section represented the State in more than 1,600 appeals and related matters with a 95 percent rate of upholding convictions in the Court of Criminal Appeals, and a 97 percent success rate in the Alabama Supreme Court.

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Yet we are but one part of the broader effort that exists to protect victims and ensure they are heard.  Local law enforcement and district attorneys are the true foot soldiers in this fight.  These men and women have a calling.  Many risk their lives daily to administer justice for victims, while others fight this battle in courtrooms across the state to see that offenders are held accountable and justice is served. Once cases are made, victims advocacy groups, such as Alabama’s Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL), perform valuable service in providing moral support and assistance to violent crime victims and their families.  Victim service officers in district attorney’s offices are also dedicated to the needs of victims and their families. 

But what seems unspoken by all of us who come into contact with victims is what we learn from them.  Victims who have faced the worst situations imaginable teach us invaluable lessons of strength, resilience and justice.

I saw STRENGTH just a few weeks ago as I stood with the victims of Jefferson County child molester Don Corley in opposing his early release.  Corley was a man who was entrusted by his church and the Boy Scouts to mentor youth but abused that trust.  I watched as three former boy scout troop members who he had been sexually abused testified against his parole before television cameras and a large crowd.  Each spoke candidly about what this man had done to them.  Each showed true courage and strength by speaking openly about their worst nightmare, discussing things most men would never want to admit publicly.  Because of their strength, parole was denied and the offender will serve his full sentence.

I saw RESILIENCE during a recent visit with the family of victims of the 1996 Huntsville “cell phone murders” who were in Montgomery for the oral arguments in the appeal of one of the perpetrator’s death sentences. In committing his crimes, he, along with two other men, held seven people at gunpoint for nearly two hours, assaulting, torturing and then shooting the victims with 19 rounds, all over a stolen cell phone.  The crime occurred over 20 years ago, but the family has persevered, never wavering in their desire to see that the convicted murders receive the punishment the judge imposed.

I know JUSTICE because of a boy named Uriel who died a day after his first birthday.  His mother and her boyfriend brought him to a hospital saying that he had fallen off the bed and hit his head – a bed that actually was a mattress lying on the floor.  The autopsy showed bruising from head to toe, two fractured ribs, burn and human bite marks and blunt force trauma to the head.  I had a chance to obtain justice for Uriel and ensure that those who committed that offense would never harm anyone else.  This little boy taught me that I had been given the solemn responsibility to secure justice for those who have been harmed and to embrace that important role for all victims that I served.

STRENGTH.  RESILIENCE.  JUSTICE.  Going forward let us take strength from one another, be resilient by our common purpose and continue to be instruments for justice for all victims.

Steven T. Marshall is Alabama’s 48th Attorney General