Crime Victims Equality Act Passes

Originally published in Article 3, the newsletter of MVFHR, Fall 2009:

One of the pieces of legislation that MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing sponsored during his recent term as a New Hampshire state representative was the Crime Victims Equality Act, which provides that crime victims shall be treated equally under the law regardless of their position on the death penalty. Specifically, the bill ensures “The right to all federal and state constitutional rights guaranteed to all victims of crime on an equal basis, and notwithstanding the provisions of any laws on capital punishment, the right not to be discriminated against or have their rights as a victim denied, diminished, expanded, or enhanced on the basis of the victim’s support for, opposition to, or neutrality on the death penalty.”

The idea for this bill -- the first of its kind in the United States to become law -- took hold in Renny’s mind a decade ago, when he began encountering victims whose rights were denied because of their opposition to the death penalty.

“I had supported victims’ rights and victims’ compensation legislation in my state,” Renny remembers, “but it wasn’t until I started working against the death penalty that I realized there was also a need for another kind of victims’ law. I worked directly with some families – and heard stories about others – who were denied the right to speak, or to get information, or to receive assistance from the court-appointed victims’ advocate, because they were against the death penalty. I realized there was a need for laws that ban this kind of discrimination. It seemed that if you were opposed to the death penalty, you were, in some eyes, forfeiting your identity as a crime victim.”

Gus and Audrey Lamm’s case was one particularly explicit example of victims being denied their rights and their identity as victims under the law. Gus wife, Victoria Zessin, had been murdered in 1980, when their daughter Audrey was only 2. Randy Reeves was convicted of the murders of Vicki and her friend Janet Mesner and was sentenced to death.

Years later, when the state Pardon Board was considering Reeves’s request for a commutation of his death sentence, three victims’ family members asked to present testimony but only one was allowed to do so – Victoria’s sister, who supported the death sentence.

“I remember that as I stood up to speak, all I was told was that I was not allowed to speak,” says Gus now. “I was told to sit back down. The Attorney General read the letter from Vicki’s sister saying that she supported the death penalty.”

Gus and Audrey were stunned and upset but were determined not to accept the situation without protest. “When I was told I couldn’t speak, I started speaking!” Gus explains. In the years since his wife’s murder, he had dealt with the experience privately and focused on raising their young daughter. But when he learned that the execution was pending, he had felt he had to speak out, and being denied that right in the context of the Pardon Board hearing only increased his sense of outrage.

“I felt that what was happening didn’t have anything to do with justice, it had to do with politics,” he says, “and I knew that if this execution took place, more people would be traumatized, most especially Randy’s parents. I just wanted to stop the suffering. And I knew that I was only one of many people who had experienced this.”

Gus filed suit against the Nebraska Pardon Board, charging that he and his daughter Audrey had been unfairly denied the right to be heard at a commutation proceeding (one of the rights enumerated in the state’s victims’ rights law). The judge ruled that because they wanted to speak in opposition to the perpetrator’s death sentence, Gus and Audrey were “not victims, as that term is commonly understood.”

“It was like they were able to pick and choose who was a victim and who wasn’t,” Gus recalls now. “It was an attempt to marginalize us and even to negate us entirely: as though, because we opposed the death penalty, we could only be ‘agents of Randy Reeves’ – that was the term the judge used – and not relatives of the murder victim, who had a right to testify at the pardon board hearing just like the other relatives.”

Gus recognizes that his case is one of those that gave rise to the Crime Victims’ Equality Act that just passed in New Hampshire. “The passage of the bill is wonderful,” Gus says. “People are generally unfamiliar with discrimination against victims’ families who oppose the death penalty, it’s rarely talked about, so this legislation shines a light on the issue.”

Renny agrees that the CVEA can be a vehicle for drawing attention to the discrimination that occurs. “It struck lawmakers in New Hampshire when they learned that this was not about one isolated example. I was able to describe many different kinds of stories that I had learned about over the years that all pointed to the need for this legislation.”

Rather than singling out one group, the law is worded so as to ban discrimination against any victims on the basis of their position on the death penalty. “It’s a matter of equality,” Renny explains. “We can’t allow there to be hierarchies of victims. The legislation is about the right of everybody to hold their own position on the death penalty and not be denied victims’ rights because of it.”

In New Hampshire, the CVEA received support from a range of groups, including members of law enforcement and victims’ advocates. “For people who are on the front lines of victims’ services,” Renny says, “a law like this allows them to provide support to all victims, even those who take a different position from the one the state may be taking.”

The bill is also a good vehicle for both supporters and opponents of the death penalty to come together in favor of upholding victims’ rights. “Victims’ rights laws are supposed to protect victims from being re-victimized by the criminal justice process,,” says, Renny, “and that ought to be something that everyone can support.”