The National Organization for Victim Assistance is involved in a variety of professional and public outreach endeavors. These include ongoing webinars on topics of interest and importance to professionals involved in providing victim assistance, professionals employed in different elements of the criminal justice system, victims and their advocates, and members of the general public. One such webinar was presented by Katharine Manning of Blackbird. Blackbird is an organization dedicated to giving a voice to victims of crime as well as individuals who experience workplace victimization. 

The presentation focuses on three key topics associated with the rights of a victim of crime:

  • Definition of a victim
  • Rights
  • Enforcement

About the National Organization for Victim Assistance

Founded in 1975, the National Organization for Victim Assistance, or NOVA, is the oldest victim assistance and support organization of its kind in the United States. NOVA has become a nationally recognized leader in three broad categories of service:

  • Victim advocacy
  • Education associated with victim assistance
  • Credentialing of victim assistance specialists

The mission of NOVA is:

Our mission is to champion dignity and compassion for those harmed by crime and crisis.

Definition of a Victim

Ascertaining whether or not a person qualifies as a victim does require some thoughtful analysis. The process of defining a victim focuses on three prime questions:

  • Did the person suffer harm?
  • What caused the harm?
  • Is there some reason this person isn’t entitled to rights?

Did the Person Suffer Harm?

In order for a person to be a victim of a crime or some other type of wrongful conduct, that individual must suffer harm. Harm suffered can include:

  • Physical harm
  • Emotional harm
  • Psychological harm
  • Combination of these three types of harm

Harm can come in the form of an isolated incident, a series of such incidents, or ongoing and pervasive incidents.

What Caused the Harm?

In determining whether or not a person qualifies as a being a victim, a look at what caused the harm and why it occurred needs to be undertaken. Different types of causes of harm exist including everything from a physical act to emotional or psychological manipulation. 

Is There Some Reason This Person Isn’t Entitled to Rights?

Finally, when considering what defines a victim, attention must also be paid to whether some reason or another exists as to why an individual isn’t entitled to rights that are afforded an actual victim. This question typically is the most perilous of the three associated with identifying victims of crime. Moreover, this question tends to be at issue in some of the most problematic and challenging instances in which a victim attempts to assert rights.

Cases involving sexual assault provide grim and yet commonplace examples in which challenges are made to a person’s attempt to assert rights as a victim of a particularly egregious type of criminal activity. For example, time and again, alleged perpetrators of sex crimes utilize a defense based on a contention a victim consented to the conduct underpinning the criminal allegation. This defense of an alleged perpetrator is designed to strip a victim of nearly all rights associated with the purported crime through a judicial frontal assault based on an argument that nothing improper occurred. 

Rights

In broadly considering victim rights, there are eight general categories in which these rights are found in the U.S. criminal justice system.

  • Protection 
  • Notice
  • Attendance
  • To be heard
  • Confer
  • Restitution
  • Timely disposition
  • Privacy

Of these rights, that of ongoing protection is of paramount concern. An overarching right of a crime victim is protection against revictimization. This includes revictimization by the offender, individuals associated with the offender (including legal counsel), victimization by law enforcement officials, victimization as a result of the machinations of the judicial system.

A victim is to be provided notice of all court proceedings associated with the prosecution of the criminal defendant. In addition, the rights of a crime victim include the opportunity to attend all major proceedings in a criminal prosecution. These typically include such court settings such as the preliminary hearing, the trial, and the sentencing.

A crime victim has the right to be heard during a criminal proceeding. In most instances, the time to be heard is the sentencing of the defendant. A victim can make an oral statement to the court or prepare a written impact statement. 

A crime victim has the right to be conferred with in regard to major decisions in a criminal prosecution. The primary instances in which conferring is necessary include matters like offering a plea deal to a defendant and in regard to matters associated with sentencing.

In criminal proceedings, a victim is also entitled to restitution for losses. In addition, a victim has the right to a timely disposition of a criminal case so that the matter is not hanging over a victim’s head for an inordinate period of time. Finally, a crime victim has the right to privacy. 

Enforcement

  • Standing 
  • Complaint procedures
  • Jeffrey Epstein case

Standing 

Standing is a legal term of art that generally means an individual has the ability to assert certain legal rights. A person with standing has the legal authority to pursue or assert his or her rights, oftentimes in a court of law. In the case of a crime victim, such an individual has the legal ability to seek the enforcement or satisfaction of the rights set forth previously in this discussion. 

Complaint Procedures

A victim of crime can lodge a complaint or seek redress if certain rights are not being denied. In a criminal trial, the starting point can be the judge presiding over the prosecution itself. 

A crime victim can also seek redress from an abrogation of rights by reaching out to the California Victim Services Unit. In addition, the California Victim Compensation Board can provide assistance in a number of areas associated with a victim’s rights, including those associated with financial recovery for losses arising from a crime. 

Jeffrey Epstein Cases

The cases involving financier Jeffrey Epstein highlight a number of ways in which victims of crime can see their rights trampled. In 2006, 40 minor girls in Palm Beach County, Florida, were identified as making credible allegations that they had been sexually assaulted by Epstein. Both the state of Florida and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida investigated the allegations. 

In the end, and without the involvement of the multiple victims in the manner discussed earlier in this presentation, the federal government agreed not to prosecute Epstein and the man ended up spending a matter of months in prison as a result of the state investigation and charges. Had this “sweetheart” non-prosecution deal not been reached with Epstein – again, excluding the victims from the process counter the rights listed a moment ago – he very likely would have been convicted and would have been sentenced to life in prison.

Ultimately, in 2019, Epstein faced another round of sexual assault charges in New York federal court. Before the prosecution was really underway, Epstein died in his jail cell, evidently by suicide.