Victim Impact Statements
Recently in the news there has been some discussion about Victim Impact Statements. Legislators have proposed a bill that would require those convicted of a serious crime to listen to the statements of victims or families during sentencing. Whether an individual convicted of a crime should have to be present during victim impact statements has been debated recently following the sentencing of Jeffrey Willis for the murder of Rebekah Bletsch. During the sentencing, Willis was allowed to leave the courtroom before impact statements were given. There is nothing in the law that prevented the judge from allowing him to leave. The proposed bill would be known as the Rebekah Bletsch Law if enacted.
What are victim impact statements?
Under the Crime Victim’s Right Act (CVRA), when someone is convicted of a crime, the individuals who qualify as victims of that crime are given certain rights. One such right is to give or submit a statement about the impact of the crime. The individuals receive notice from the prosecuting attorney of the right to make a written or oral impact statement. This right also has a basis in the Michigan Constitution, which gives the right to “make a statement to the court at sentencing.”
Who is considered a victim?
Not everyone may make or write impact statements at sentencing, only people who fit the definition of the term “victim.” Under the CVRA, a victim is “an individual who suffers direct or threatened physical, financial, or emotional harm as a result of the commission of a crime.” If the individual is deceased, a spouse, child, or parent/guardian may give the statement. If those do not apply, a sibling or grandparent may give a statement. Also, if the individual was less than 18 years old at the time of the crime, a parent or guardian may give the impact statement. If the individual is “physically or emotionally unable to exercise the privileges and rights” under the CVRA, he or she may designate any other person who is at least 18 years old to make the statement on his or her behalf.
Some individuals may not qualify as “victims,” such as those charged with a crime arising out of the same circumstances. Or the rights under the CVRA may be limited, such as with incarcerated individuals, who may only submit a written statement.
What is included in the statement?
The statement can include, but is not limited to, an explanation of the nature and extent of any physical, psychological, emotional, or economic harm suffered by the individual. It may also include an opinion of the need for and extent of restitution and a recommendation for an appropriate sentence.
What about the rights of those convicted of crimes?
At sentencing, the parties must be given an opportunity to explain or challenge the accuracy or relevancy of any information contained in what is referred to as the Presentence Investigation Report (PSIR). The impact statements are included in the PSIR, so the parties may challenge the information in the statements.
It is important for the attorney of an individual convicted of a crime to review and ensure the accuracy of the report and the statements included in the report. If the attorney fails to sufficiently review the report and does not make a challenge to inaccurate facts, the contents of the PSIR are presumed to be accurate. If a challenge regarding accuracy is made, the prosecutor has the burden to prove the facts by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the judge must decide that, more likely than not, the fact has been proven.
The accuracy of the contents in the report is critical because the sentencing court relies on the PSIR to determine the appropriate sentence. Once challenged, the court must resolve the challenge or make a finding that the information will not be considered in sentencing. If the court is considering inaccurate facts which reflect negatively on the individual being sentenced, the resulting sentence could be unjustifiably worse.
At Blanchard Law, the rights of our clients at every stage in the criminal process are important to us. If you find yourself in need of effective legal representation, give us a call to see how we can help.