Victims who have given a victim impact statement understand the trauma; it can be a confusing part of the trial. A victim impact statement (sometimes called a VIS) is the opportunity for crime victims or survivors to present to the court or parole board how a crime has affected them. It is not carte blanche to say whatever comes to mind, to verbally attack the perpetrator, or to attack the legal system. Are VIS fair?
In felony cases the survivor and/or victim is entitled to be present at the sentencing hearing; they can also legally make a VIS to the court as to the impact of the crime on their life. During a parole hearing, “Victims may also file a Victim Impact Statement with the Board. The statement becomes part of the offender’s file that is reviewed by Board Members when the offender becomes eligible for parole consideration.” The statements are given at the sentencing phases of criminal trials, and may be allowed in civil trials. The Statement is considered evidence and is filed as such. For information see Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-38-201.
The victim or the crime survivor (a person related to a deceased victim) must follow specific rules prior to approaching the stand to give their VIS. As an example, during the Tennessee trials against serial killer Paul Reid for his 1997 murder spree, only three persons per victim were allowed to give a VIS. They were limited to discussing “the emotional, physical, and financial effect of the murder.” They could not discuss religion, use profanity, show “strong emotion,” nor look at the defendant. To ensure their statement met all legal criteria, each met initially with the prosecution. Next, they had to give the VIS on the stand without a jury present, in front of the court; if they “passed” both they were allowed to give their statement in front of the jury. This meant the mother of teen victim Sarah Jackson had to relive her child’s brutal murder again and again … without sobbing or discussing Sarah’s strong Christian values. Stepping off the stand, Sarah’s mother glanced towards her daughter’s killer for less than a second; her glance caused the defense to request a mistrial and the judge to admonish the court. “Bert” Sewell was another of Reid’s victims; his little sister had to give her impact statement, without cursing or shouting at Reid, as Reid covertly blew kisses at her from his courtroom seat. (Learn more HERE)
In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991) the United States Supreme Court held “The Eighth Amendment erects no per se bar prohibiting a capital sentencing jury from considering ‘victim impact’ evidence relating to the victim’s personal characteristics and the emotional impact of the murder on the victim’s family…” One scholar called the decision “…among the most significant products of the Victim’s Rights Movement…” Payne’s crime was particularly heinous.
Sharon Tate’s mother, Doris Tate, was a pioneer in victim’s rights due to her daughter Sharon’s murderer. In 1976 Doris gave the first VIS as the perpetrators were facing the possibility of parole; the right to give all victims such a chance was passed into California law in 1982. For more information on your rights and victim impact statements, click HERE.
The rules of VIS vary depending on the jurisdiction. The statement limitations also vary for each country. For example, in Finland the victim has the right to recommend a different punishment from the prosecution’s recommended punishment. A Victim-Witness Handbook can be found HERE.
There are arguments that VIS are harmful to the courts; should a victim be allowed to influence a legal decision? There are studies showing victims feel satisfied with the system or at least somewhat justified when given the opportunity to make a statement.