1997 Academy Text Supplement

Chapter 2

History and Overview of the

Victims' Movement

"This year, we can take one more historic step to ensure that victims throughout the country are guaranteed the fundamental rights to be present, to be informed of significant developments in their cases and of their rights, and to be heard at sentencing and other appropriate times throughout the criminal justice process. The Congress should pass a Victims' Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution that will, when ratified by the States, ensure that crime victims are at the center of the criminal justice process, not on the outside looking in."

President William Jefferson Clinton

1997 National Crime Victims' Rights Week Proclamation

Significant Landmarks Over the Past Year

In 1996 and early 1997, significant developments occurred on the national and state levels with respect to victims' rights constitutional amendments, federal legislation, expansion of Victims of Crime Act fund collections, and the creation of national programs affecting crime victims.

Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendments

Federal Legislation

Federal Crime Victims Fund

Aviation Disasters

Other Significant Developments

The Victims' Rights Clarification Act of 1997

"Two of the most important rights that Congress can safeguard for crime victims is the right to witness the trial of the accused and the right to be heard in connection with the sentencing decision."

Senator Patrick Leahy, March 20, 1997

In March of 1997, just weeks before the scheduled start of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, a ruling by the presiding U.S. District Court judge excluded victims and survivors from observing the proceedings in Denver or on closed-circuit television in Oklahoma City, if they were planning to give victim impact testimony during the sentencing phase of the case. In what most lawmakers and seasoned public policy experts have said clocked 'historic speed' in the passage of a federal law, Congress rushed to pass the Victims Rights Clarification Act of 1997, in time for President Clinton to sign just minutes before leaving the country for Helsinki, Finland for a summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Although existing federal law allowed for both victim impact statements during sentencing hearings and the right of victims to attend the trial of a defendant accused of offenses against them, the federal judge's rule would have sequestered victims who planned on being "impact witnesses" during the sentencing phase.

Senator Don Nickles from Oklahoma summarized the immediate need for the Act's passage: "Congress thought it already had adopted provisions precluding such sequestration in the Victims' Bill of Rights. This bill clarifies the pre-existing law so it is indisputable that district courts cannot deny victims and surviving family members the opportunity to watch the trial merely because they will provide information during the sentencing phase of the proceedings." ("Law Sets Bomb Victims, Families Free to Testify, View Trials," Daily Oklahoman, March 20, 1997)

Language in the Victims Rights Clarification Act of 1997 states that it "shall apply in cases pending on the date of the enactment of this Act." At the time of its passage, questions were raised concerning the issue of whether the law might violate the constitutional separation of powers by having the legislative branch direct how judges in the judicial branch manage their courtrooms. Senator Nickles countered this potential problem by stating: "This bill applies to all pending cases and in no way singles out a case for unique or special treatment. Rather, a serious problem has come to light, and Congress has responded by clarifying the applicable federal law across the country from this day forward." (Ibid.)

Specifically, the Act amends Chapter 223 of Title 18 of the United States Code by adding the following new language in Section 3510 -- Rights of Victims to Attend and Observe the Trial:

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