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County already ‘hyper-vigilant’ to victim rights attached to law

As currently slated, voters today will have the opportunity to vote on Marcy’s law — an amendment to the state constitution that would enshrine victims’ rights to: a notice of developments, give statements in criminal proceedings, and refuse interview or discovery requests by the defendant.

The votes, however, may not be counted until the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has issued a ruling on a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania calling into question an alleged abridgement of the accused’s rights. It’s unclear when a decision will be issued.

Chad Hahn, a victims’ rights advocate at Wise Options, said many of the things Marcy’s Law would do are already found in the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act of 1998.

“If you’ve done any type of research or know anything in regards to the criminal process and the criminal law, you would know that lots of the things that it is intending to do, already exist in Pennsylvania law,” he said.

Marcy’s Law may help in guaranteeing victims a right to a speedy trial by clearly enshrining the right to deny interview by the accused, he said.

“Lots of times through the process that we currently use, victims are subjected to re-victimization through having to wait out the court process and then have to get up and essentially tell this story again, even though they may have already begun a healing process,” he said.

Some victims are required “to live through some of the worst times of their lives over and over and over again, re-victimizing and re-traumatizing themselves in order to seek justice,” he added.

Wade said, as an assistant district attorney, he wouldn’t oppose additional rights for victims.

Although victims have the right to deny an interview, like anyone else, “if it’s actually spelled on a wall, I think it would definitely create a degree of comfort for victims,” he said.

District attorneys often offer their offices as an interview venue for interview by the defense counsel, but many victims are informed of their rights at the onset of the case.

When a criminal case first starts, Wade said victims are given a large packet of information, including a request to be notified when the defendant is released from county or state incarceration or paroled.

Victims may not always get instant notification if the accused is released from jail, however.

“That is sometimes people’s most immediate concern,” Wade said. “Victims have a pretty good idea when they’re going to be released because they can count (according to the imposed sentence).”

Once a judge issues bail, no enforcement agency can stop the defendant from paying and being released. For example, a midnight call to a bail bondsman would allow for release before anyone is notified.

Shoring up the victim’s defense happens much before that point, said Wade.

“The biggest thing we do to protect victims is where we have a voice when it comes to bail,” he said.

If the accused has a history or reason to intimidate, the bail may be raised or other conditions may be put into motion.

“We routinely get information from victims that they feel perhaps they’ve been contacted improperly by the defendant or someone that he knows,” said Wade. “We will routinely file motions to either revoke bail, which is to put the person back in jail, or put in place certain conditions that will prevent them from having contact with the victim.”

Police often act as the victim’s primary defense through protection from abuse orders, which look to stop the accused from attempting to influence their case by either keeping the victim from talking to police or dropping their charges.

“We will frequently ask that the defendant where a GPS monitor that prohibits him or her from being within 1,000 feet of any location that the victim frequents, and in some cases, this can exclude a defendant from an entire city, depending on how busy of a person the victim is,” Wade said.

An entire team of people monitor and track those people and law enforcement is notified if the accused enters the “forbidden zone,” he said.

As for the victim’s input in proceedings, they are always provided with a victim impact statement form, which allows them to detail the effect that the crime had on their lives physically, mentally or financially.

“If I’m trying to figure out how to resolve a case, whether it’s going to be a trial or a guilty plea, I immediately fish through the electronic file for the victim impact statement,” Wade said.

In the end, the vulnerability of victims is always apparent and the district attorney’s office will work to keep the accused from doing harm, he said.

“We haunt (the accused’s) footsteps, so they’re not haunting the victim’s, and we do it within the bounds of the law, because we have certain tools available to protect the victims,” he said.

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