Victim Rights

By Elizabeth White

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

(Listen to additional excerpts of Elizabeth White's interview wuth Barnstable County District Attorney Michael O'Keefe).

Whether it's the right to remain silent, or the right to legal counsel, most people understand that when the state charges some one with a crime, that person has certain rights guaranteed by the constitution. What people are less aware of, is that victims of crimes also have legal rights. For example, the right to know where the accused is being held. In1983 the State legislature created a Victim's Bill of Rights that established a Victim-Witness Assistance Programs in each District Attorney's office. A total of fufteen victim witness advocates work on the Cape and Islands.

In the early morning hours of January 13th 1995, Carolyn Doe, then living in Centerville, was getting ready for work. She noticed the handle of her bedroom door turning slowly. Carolyn - who's asked that her last name be kept anonymous - went to the door expecting it to be her young son, but instead, a strange man stood before her.

Carolyn: "And he immediately put his hand over his mouth, pushed me back into my bedroom. As he was doing that, he put a blindfold over my eyes. And led me over to the bed. And he raped me."

After the man left, Carolyn called the police and went to the hospital to provide DNA evidence. She immediately moved in with relatives. Because it had been dark, she wasn't able to identify the perpetrator. Then, seven years later, following a tip-off, the police gathered DNA from one Melvin Ewing which matched the foreign DNA found on Carolyn's body. The state brought charges against Ewing, and the case went to trial in 2004. By this time Carolyn had bought a new house. While at home one night, she saw a man pull into her driveway.

Carolyn: "I went to the front door, and, I don't open my front door to anyone. And I just yelled, I said, who is it. And I have a front window too, and I said who is it. And he said, I'm just here to ask you a few questions regarding the Ewing case. I said, who are you. He said, I'm representing Melvin Ewing. And I said I am not speaking to anyone - leave immediately. I was shaking like a leaf, I was just, I didn't understand how they could show up at my house. That made me nervous to know they know where I am."

Confused and frightened, Carolyn called Sue O'Leary, the victim-witness advocate assigned to her case.

Carolyn: "She explained to me that yes, he did have the right to do that, but it's my right not to speak anyone. So she explained all that to me, and told me what to do, and calmed me down, really calmed me down."

O'Leary has been a victim-witness advocate in the Barnstable superior court since the Victim's Bill of Rights first went into effect in 1984.

Sue O'Leary: "Prior to the victim bill of rights being enacted, the victims were the forgotten element in the court process. I think they were left out on the benches, in lobbys, not knowing what to expect, or what exactly was happening with their cases. Carolyn keeps all the documents and newspaper clippings related to her case in a worn- looking black leather portfolio."

She searches for her victim impact statement. This is a document that explains how the rape affected her life. All victims have a right to read such a statement out loud to the jury when it comes time for sentencing.

Carolyn: "...panic attacks. My very young children lived with a mother who laughed one moment, and broke down the next. After several months of counseling..."

Melvin Ewing got the maximum sentence of twenty years. Carolyn feels justice was served and says the Victim Witness Assistance Program made her involvement in the court process much easier. However, the relationship between the DA's office and crime victims can be difficult -- even contentious. DAs often plead out cases despite the contrary wishes of victims. Barnstable County District Attorney Michael O'Keefe recognizes frustrations remain. Particularly, he says, when cases take a long time to try.

Michael O'Keefe: "It's literally anywhere from six to nine months, to sometimes well over a year until a case is finally resolved depending on the seriousness of the case and the complexity of the case, from the defendant's perspective with respect to how many motions are going to be filed, how many continuances are going to be granted."

O'Keefe says it's the job of the Victim Witness advocates to explain to the victim what's going on with their case.

Michael O'Keefe: "Their frustration level is still going to be there. But it's mitigated significantly by the fact that some one takes the time to explain why it's taking so long.

Sue O'Leary says victim advocates help a victim feel empowered and supported during the court process, but, she says, they're not psychologists. O'Leary always encourages victims of violent crime to seek professional counseling - for which they have the right to be compensated.

Broadcast May 10, 2006 and rebroadcast February 22, 2007

Elizabeth White reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.