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The Weight of Words: The Power of Our Stories During Victims’ Rights Week

As we honor National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, starting this Sunday, the image of Lady Justice—a figure that has stood as an emblem of fairness and equity in the judicial system—takes on new meaning. Traditionally seen holding the scales of justice, which symbolize the balanced weighing of evidence, she also wears a blindfold representing impartiality. Yet, in this powerful depiction, there’s an addition to her iconic portrayal: Lady Justice holds a document titled "Victim Impact Statement."

This image is more than just an aesthetic choice for our discussion. It's a profound symbol of the role victims play in the legal process—a reminder that the scales of justice not only balance the evidence but also the stories, the emotions, and the personal experiences of those who have been wronged.

As we delve into the significance of victim impact statements, let us keep this image in mind. It reflects the weight that these documents carry and the potential they have to tip the scales towards a deeper understanding and a more compassionate legal outcome.

The Importance of Victim Impact Statements:

Recently, the heartfelt outreach from a woman struggling to write her victim impact statement reminded me of the daunting challenges victims face in the judicial process. This interaction prompted me to reflect on the time when Marsy's Law was not available, a time that offered fewer protections for victims like us.

Personal Reflection: The Day of Reckoning

On September 16, 2015, at 9 AM, I entered the courtroom not merely as a case number, but as a survivor. Surrounded by the unwavering support of my family and friends, I was poised to confront the painful memories that had haunted me—the fear, the brokenness, the solitude, and the shame. This moment was a culmination of a grueling journey, one where I fought tirelessly to reclaim my voice and self-assurance.

Standing before the judge—and crucially, in front of my abuser—I narrated the harrowing journey my family and I had endured. The judge needed to see the real me: the pain in my eyes, the tremor in my voice, the resolve in my spirit. I wasn't there just as a victim but as a daughter, a mother, a person demanding to be seen and heard.

As I returned to my seat after delivering my statement, a profound sense of release washed over me. The weight that had oppressed me for so long was lifted. I felt the shackles of my trauma break away; I was free. This liberation did not stem from the sentence to be handed down—six years—but from the power of my voice echoing through the courtroom. One prosecutor later told me that in his twenty years of service, he had never heard a victim impact statement as compelling as mine. This validation underscored the strength it took to speak out and the transformative power of our voices.

September 16, 2015, remains a milestone in my life—the day I stood in court not just as a survivor of domestic violence but as an advocate for myself and my family. The courtroom transformed into a place of liberation. The emotional release I felt as I read my statement, and the subsequent affirmations from the court, underscored the profound impact our words can have. This wasn't just about the legal outcome; it was about being heard, truly and deeply.

Introduction to Marsy's Law:

When I was navigating the challenges of the judicial system in 2013-2015, Marsy's Law was not yet available to provide the protections and rights it now ensures for victims of crime; it was passed in Ohio on November 7, 2017. Enacted to amend the state constitutions in several states, Marsy's Law grants specific rights to crime victims, ensuring that they are treated with fairness and respect throughout the legal proceedings.

What is Marsy’s Law?

Marsy's Law was named after Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas, a college student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Only a week after her murder, Marsy’s family encountered her accused murderer, who had been released on bail without their knowledge. This traumatic experience highlighted the need for greater protection and rights for victims within the judicial system.

Rights Provided by Marsy’s Law:

  1. Right to be treated with respect, fairness, and dignity throughout the criminal process.

  2. Right to be informed about and present at proceedings.

  3. Right to be heard at plea and sentencing proceedings.

  4. Right to reasonable protection from the accused and those acting on behalf of the accused.

  5. Right to notification of the release or escape of the accused.

  6. Right to privacy and to be free from intimidation, harassment, or abuse.

Impact of Marsy’s Law:

Since its implementation, Marsy's Law has significantly altered the landscape for victims' rights in several states. Victims are now more informed, involved, and heard within the legal process, which aligns with the principles of justice and fairness that the law seeks to uphold.

The enactment of Marsy’s Law marks a pivotal advancement in the fight for victims' rights. While this legislation was not in place during my legal battles, its presence today offers a layer of security and acknowledgment that was previously missing. For anyone going through similar experiences now, Marsy’s Law provides a crucial support system designed to protect your rights and ensure your voice is heard.

Writing Together:

A Journey of Healing: Writing victim impact statements can be a profoundly healing activity. My daughter, only seven at the time, wrote and courageously read her statement in court, a testament to the resilience and strength that even our youngest can exhibit. This act was not only empowering for her but deeply inspiring for all of us. Sharing these narratives highlights the significant impact crime has on victims' families and aids in the healing process.

7 Year-Old Daughter Reading Victim Impact Statement

Crafting Your Victim Impact Statement: A Guide to Telling Your Truth

  • Understanding the Role of Your Statement: Firstly, it's crucial to recognize that a victim impact statement is a post-conviction presentation. It comes into play after a verdict of guilt and is an integral part of the pre-sentencing investigation, contributing to the judge's decision. This is not about recounting the crime itself; it's your account of how the crime affected you and your family.

  • The Right to Speak: If the offender in your case is convicted, as a victim, you have the right to submit a victim impact statement. This document is considered by the sentencing judge and can influence the final decision. It's important to understand that once submitted, your statement becomes a part of the case file, accessible to key figures in the legal process.

  • Conveying the Impact Factually and Emotionally: While it’s vital to express how the crime affected you, aim to balance factual description with emotional expression. Detail the impact in practical terms—how the crime altered your daily life, your sense of security, or your outlook on the future. It’s important to convey the gravity of your emotions but try to do so without letting the statement become overly emotional. This can make your narrative more compelling and easier for the court to understand.

  • Steer Clear of Revenge: It’s natural to harbor intense feelings about the offender and the crime. However, focus your statement on the personal aftermath rather than on revenge or punishment. The court is interested in understanding the impact on you to better judge the crime's consequences, not necessarily to hear about the retribution you seek. Avoid discussing what you wish would happen to the perpetrator, as this can detract from the effectiveness of your statement.

  • Perception of the Offender: If relevant and comfortable for you, share your thoughts on the type of person the offender has shown themselves to be, especially regarding remorse or lack thereof. For instance, if you believe their actions demonstrate a lack of remorse, this observation could be a powerful addition to your statement, as it speaks to the character of the offender and the potential risk they pose.

  • Expressing Your Fears: Addressing your fears can be a potent component of your impact statement. Speak to any ongoing fears you have about the offender being on the street again and how the prospect of their release affects you. This can underscore the lasting impact of the crime and the need for a sentence that reflects both justice and your need for safety.

  • Articulating Desired Outcomes and Justice: When crafting your victim impact statement, it's important to consider what you hope to achieve through the sentencing process. This part of your statement can be used to express your views on what would constitute justice in your case. It is not only about reflecting on the past but also about looking forward and stating your needs for the feeling that justice has been served.

    • Requesting Restitution: If applicable, this is also the section where you can specify if you are seeking restitution. Restitution can cover anything from medical bills, therapy costs, lost wages, to other expenses incurred as a result of the crime. Clearly articulate any financial reparations you believe are necessary to help mend the material damages inflicted upon you and your family.

    •   Express Your Sentencing Preferences: If you have specific expectations for the sentencing itself, such as the imposition of a particular penalty or type of sentence, this is where you can outline them thoughtfully. While the decision ultimately rests with the judge, expressing your perspective can be an important part of your advocacy as a victim.

    • Conclusion of Your WishesEnd this section by reaffirming your need for these outcomes to feel that justice has been adequately served. Your requests must be seen as part of your healing journey, rather than as punitive demands.

  • Speaking from the Heart: Be factual but also heartfelt in describing how the crime has affected you. Focus on the irreversible changes and the impact that can't be undone, but aim to describe rather than display your emotions. While it's natural to feel anger and a desire for justice, it's essential to keep the tone of your statement centered on the effects of the crime, rather than feelings of revenge or vindictiveness.

  • Seek Feedback: Before finalizing your statement, consider having it reviewed by someone who can provide constructive feedback, ideally someone with a strong writing background, however even if it's a family member or friend, it would be nice to have a 2nd pair of eyes review it. This can ensure that your message is clear and impactful.

  • Delivering Your Statement: When it's time to read your statement, either to yourself, a loved one, or in court, hearing the words aloud can be a cathartic experience. It allows you to process your emotions and to practice delivering your message with the poise and clarity it deserves.

Tips for Writing a Powerful Victim Impact Statement:

Writing has always been one of my superpowers. I find it natural to express myself through words, but I understand that for some, this task can feel overwhelming and intimidating. Here are a few suggestions based on my experiences:

  • Write from the First Person: Immerse yourself back into those difficult times to share your story authentically. This isn't just recounting events; it's about letting the judge see the world through your eyes. Remember, for many judges, this will be the first time they hear directly from you rather than through the filter of legal documents or third parties.

  • Tell Your Truth: Often, this is your first opportunity to speak in your own words in front of the judge. Until this point, perhaps only the prosecutor has a full grasp of your experience, and it's not until the trial that all the details of your case are shared. Use this chance to tell your story and convey all the emotions you’ve felt. It can be painful to relive these experiences, but it also presents a crucial opportunity for the judge to understand the depth of what you’ve endured.

  • Catalog Your Emotions: Begin by listing each emotional response or psychological effect the experience has brought you—fear, confusion, withdrawal, mistrust, depression, PTSD, trauma, etc. Expand on each of these responses, providing context and detail. This will help you organize your thoughts and weave them into a narrative that powerfully conveys your journey.

  • Organizing Your Thoughts: When preparing your victim impact statement, it can be helpful to use journal entries or personal records arranged in chronological order. In my case, which spanned nearly two years before sentencing, I referenced numerous journal entries documenting my experiences as a victim, the toll of the legal process, emotional responses, and the path to healing. These included notes on medical procedures, therapy sessions, the effects on my children, and the economic impact of the crime. Consider printing and physically rearranging these notes to better see the timeline and how events unfolded. Creating an outline is also an effective way to ensure your statement is structured clearly and flows logically.

  • Enhancing Your Impact Statement with Visual Aids To further emphasize the seriousness of your experience when delivering your victim impact statement, consider using visual aids. For example, during my statement, I presented images of my injuries on poster boards. Even though the judge had already seen these images in my file, displaying them again while I read my statement ensured that the visual impact accompanied my words, leaving a lasting impression. This approach is particularly effective in helping the court grasp the full extent of physical injuries and the tangible aftermath of the crime. If you decide to use visual aids, make sure they are prepared professionally and are sensitive to the context of your statement. It's also important to check with the court or your legal representative beforehand to ensure that bringing such materials is allowed.

  • Conveying Your Message to the Defendant Indirectly: While most courtrooms do not allow you to address the defendant directly, use your statement as a chance to articulate the impact of their actions. This indirect address can be a powerful way to express the pain and consequences of their behavior.

  • Take Breaks as Needed: Writing a victim impact statement can be an emotionally taxing journey. It's vital to prioritize your well-being throughout this process, so please, take breaks as needed. There's no requirement to complete it in one sitting; allow yourself days, even weeks, to thoroughly articulate your thoughts. This process is not solely about crafting a compelling narrative—it's equally a period of personal reflection and self-care during a challenging recount.

    • Planning: Please be mindful that impact statements typically need to be submitted to the prosecutor one to two weeks before your court date. Plan accordingly to give yourself ample time for reflection, writing, and any revisions that might be necessary.

  • Empower Yourself Through Your Words: Use this moment to reclaim your voice and your power. Writing a victim impact statement offers a unique opportunity to stand up in a formal setting and speak your truth. It’s about transforming your narrative from one of victimhood to one of strength and resilience. This is your time to assert control over how your story is told, to ensure that the court understands the full impact of the crime on your life. It's not just recounting facts; it's about conveying the emotional depth and personal changes that resulted from the incident. Let your words reflect your journey from pain to empowerment, showing that while the experience is a part of you, it does not define you. Embrace this opportunity to make your voice heard loud and clear—it’s a powerful step towards healing and justice.

Comprehensive Guide and Sample Letter

For those looking for more detailed guidance and a practical example of how to apply these tips, I have compiled a comprehensive guide complete with a sample victim impact statement. This guide is designed to support you through the process of articulating your experiences and emotions in a structured and impactful way.

To access the guide and sample letter, click below to download.

Victim Impact Statement Guide 2024
Download PDF • 277KB

This resource aims to provide you with the tools you need to effectively communicate the depth of your experiences and the consequences of the crime, helping you navigate this crucial part of the judicial process.

Further Reading and Resources:

For those looking for more detailed guidance or additional perspectives on victim impact statements, you might find these posts helpful:

Each post offers unique insights and further elaborations on the importance and impact of these statements in the judicial process. For a more vivid illustration of these moments, you can view the courtroom video from the sentencing where my daughter and I read our statements. This link is available in the previous posts linked above.

Embracing Your Journey of Healing and Empowerment

Being victimized initiates a journey of healing and growth, and writing a victim impact statement is a pivotal step along that path. This process is more than a formality—it's an opportunity to reclaim your voice and affirm your rights within the judicial system. If you have the chance to give a statement, I highly recommend seizing it. Don't let feelings of being overwhelmed or stepping outside your comfort zone deter you. Use this moment to stand in your power!

I understand it can be daunting, but remember, it is your right to speak up. Using your voice in this way can significantly aid in your healing process. It allows you not just to be heard but to actively participate in seeking justice for yourself and potentially preventing future harm to others. Embrace this opportunity—it is yours, and it is powerful!


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