Victim Impact Statements

My argument regarding victim impact statements is not that they shouldn`t be used but how they should be used.

Please tell me what we want the accused to hear and know. In giving an account of the impact of the crime to the accused what are we seeking? Do we wish to whisper guilt and responsibility into some part of her soul? Do we want him to feel guilty? Is that social justice?

Do we believe that since this person is involved in a crime they do not have the capacity for guilt or shame? Since they are mentally ill do we believe they are intellectually challenged to the point where they can’t comprehend how they have altered lives? Do you really think Vincent Lee doesn’t realize people are horrified and damaged? Do you believe he has not also been damaged by the events? His world is forever altered as well. It was not in the name of evil, it was in the name of illness.

If a court finds an individual to be neither guilty nor innocent which side do we choose? If it is a stranger or someone in a newspaper we might all honestly choose to ascribe guilt. It is a foreign concept to be separate from reality. For some individuals in society it is part of their illness. For the small percentage that is dealt with forensically we might all consider it may be someone we care about.

If your brother or sister, neighbour or co-worker were to be caught up in similar circumstances what would your concerns be? Certainly we all want to be safe but once that is ensured I would hope every other decision was towards rehabilitation. It is not because I am soft or gullible…a lefty. It is because I knew you when you pushed your children on swings. It is because you always had a smile for me each morning I saw you. It is because we have shared this home/workspace/community. You were my classmate, you were my friend. I worked with you and tipped your service. We were family, we were a ball team. We laughed and worried together.

When you pull me from a headline and place me amongst yourselves how do you want to treat me? Is it “this is what you have done” you want me to hear or “how can we help?” Despite the fact that we see these individuals with the police, in court, in jail and in orange it is the invisible mental illness we must remember. Our treatment of these individuals affects the very illness that brings them to our attention. We can hate what they have done, we can hate their illness but if you hate them you hate someone for an illness.

The court needs to hear from any victim. They deserve their voice but it is not a convicted criminal they are addressing. One in five might be able to imagine what it is like to be exposed to this while ill. Can you imagine it to be cruel? Do we care?

If I was being cared for on the street would my therapist prescribe a recounting of my offences as some new treatment?

When I am well if you want me to know your pain I will listen.

8 thoughts on “Victim Impact Statements

  1. Is it about making the accused feel guilt? Or showing the court just how far one small act can affect a life, a family of lives, a circle of friends?
    I feel neither anger nor hatred toward the young man who stabbed my son, left him for dead with a wound through his brain, robbing him of movement, sight, speech and memory. I hope and pray that he learns as much from his act as we have.
    When a crime is committed by someone with a genuine mental illness, they need help not more guilt heaped upon them.
    However, I object to the current trend for pulling the mental illness card as an excuse with little of no medical confirmation. That he is disturbed I can well accept, that he has things in his past that affect his present, I can accept. Most of us do. That does not excuse ramming a screwdriver through a stranger’s brain for no reason.
    As a secondary victim I watched my son struggle to give that impact statement. With tears streaming as he fought to speak, stranded in a bed, unable to walk away. The treatment I was given for the PTSD caused by the event.. another mental illness… was to relive, over and over, the horrors that woke me screaming, or took me back, regardless of where I was, to those moments.
    Four years on, my son still cannot speak clearly, has little sight, cannot walk or balance. He deserved a voice in court.
    And yes, I do understand the ramifications of serious mental illness. My son will be married in a few month’s time. His fiancee is biploar. My best friend was bipolar. I have cared daily for those with profound depression and have fought through that mire myself.
    Victim impact statements should not be used to heap guilt upon the perpetrator… most will feel it deeply enough if they are morally capable of doing so. But victims deserve a voice too.

    • Hi Sue,

      Your views are thoughtful considering your tragedy. As I said, I too think it is important for the court to hear Victim Impact Statements. We are also in agreement that mentally ill accused “need help not more guilt heaped upon them.”

      I can’t comment on the current trend of pulling the mental illness card. It sounds like this may have been the case regarding your son. I was too psychotic for about 9 months after my arrest to even comprehend that I needed a lawyers assistance. I didn’t even know what Not Criminally Responsible was until I was in a forensic facility for assessment. I can only assume I was assessed critically, thoroughly and with unbiased measures.

      In my instance to be found Not Criminally Responsible was the worst case scenario regarding my liberty. The only advantage to the NCR designation was the treatment I received for my illness. Had I the mental capacity to choose a path it would have been the other.

      I am dismayed to hear about your son. Even though I am not the accused or tied to the situation in any way it is difficult to hear. Thankfully he is a strong man and is finding fulfillment.

      We seem to be in agreement which some might be surprised at. The accused can never really know the pain or loss of a victim but their involvement while ill serves no one. From the tone of your note I can’t imagine you would be one to find satisfaction in knowing your impact statement was detrimental to anyone. Victim Impact Statements need to make an impression on us all but it can at times be inhumane to present this evidence to someone who is ill.

      Thanks very much for sharing your story. I welcome any further discussion.

      • Thank you, Brett. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for you in that situation. Mental illness… very like many brain injuries in fact… is invisible, stigmatised and poorly understood.

        As far as I am concerned the Impact Statement is, or should be, for the court not the accused at time of trial. If there is real value in presenting that to a perpetrator found guilty and undergoing criminal rehabilitation, then by all means use it at that point to allow them to begin to understand the far ranging consequences of their actions.

        If the accused is suffering from a genuine mental illness, it cannot help anyone, except to increase the burden of suffering all round, and can only make things worse by heaping the detail of guilt upon that which they already feel.

        As far as the circumstances of my son’s attacker are concerned, playing the mental illness card was a case of this 18 year old’s own opinion (and I stress ‘own’) he ‘might be schizophrenic’ and had diminished responsibility because he took drugs. Not a good excuse, I’m afraid.

        From his laughter in the court and subsequent actions after his release a few months ago which have returned him to prison for further violence, I would concede sociopathic tendencies…in which case the impact statement would serve no purpose whatsoever in his regard.

        The courts serve the law, not justice. That is found in other ways. As things stand my son, his mind miraculously intact, has found life and joy, even in disability.. his attacker has not. And may never have the inner freedom to do so.

        I see justice in that.

        In Light,
        Sue

  2. As always, well put Brett. Too often those found ncr are subjected to humiliation and revenge, neither of which are fair in the context of an illness or reflect well on our society. Those of us not impacted by mental illness so far need to remember that compassion and understanding yield better results in all things. Mental illness is not a choice.

    • Hi Barb,

      Thanks so much for the comments. I dropped off the radar for a spell but wanted you to know I am appreciative of all the help from that end.

      If we stand back and look at things from another perspective it does not reflect well on us as a civilized and compassionate society. When it is most difficult to respond compassionately we must. It may seem the individual is undeserving but a pool fills from the bottom. There will be less compassion for all of us if we try to crimp the hose.

  3. When a violent crime is committed and mental illness is involved it is a difficult situation for everyone, for the victim and the victims family. For the offender and the offenders family. In this case, frankly, everyone is in some way a victim. Yet still, at least in the US when a crime is committed and there is an offender, whether there is a finding of NCR or not, it is the State v. the Offender; the victim loses their voice. The only way to regain that voice is through the Victim Impact Statement, the only way to remind the courts the victim exists and has suffered real harm is the VIS.

    I think most people want what is best, want to be able to show compassion and want a person with true mental illness to find their health. The problem, at least here in the US, is all too often mental illness is used as an excuse rather than a honest and valid cause for violent actions that have terrible consequences. We have seen all to often the results of dishonest diagnoses and court systems willing to ignore historical evidence in favor of bought and paid for testimony.

    As a victim of violence, my offenders were not mentally ill they were simply violent. Their acts did great harm to me, left me handicapped and according to the doctors likely shaved a decade off my life, perhaps more. That I lived at all is considered miraculous. The ripple affect of their actions through my family and close friends was terrible. I made a Victim Impact Statement at their sentencing, so did many members of my family. I make one at every parole hearing, so do my now grown children and other members of my family.

    Do I want them to understand the affect their actions had on me and mine? Yes.
    Do I want them to find compassion and empathy for others through hearing my Victim Impact? Yes

    Would I feel the same were they mentally ill? No, I would not feel this during the time they were suffering. However, did they have a break with reality because they chose to stop taking their medications, because knowing they might lose touch with reality they still stopped would I want them to hear the impact of their choice once they were stable again. Yes, I would want this. Not because I am cruel, but instead because I believe in choosing to stop medication they also chose the path that led to violence.

    This desire is not about guilt. It is however about responsibility and future accountability. Knowing what can happen and always remembering.

    • I am sorry to hear about your experience with violence. I have been as well although it has all been emotional damage. I think it takes something great to stand up to someone and tell them how they have wronged you. I struggle to do that in my day to day life (that’s some of the emotional damage I’m talking about) so I think it is amazing that you are able to speak at parole hearings and such.

      I wanted to comment specifically about this part of your comment, ” I believe in choosing to stop medication they also chose the path that led to violence.” I wanted to share my experience in where stopping medication made me less violent. Many psychiatric drugs can cause suicidality and homicidality. I was the unfortunate recipient of both side effects when I was 16 years old, although I did more damage to myself. For 5 years I also experienced severe rage which caused me to become verbally and sometimes physically violent towards others. All of these emotional and physically violent behaviours stopped when I stopped the medication.

      We need to take this all on a case by case basis. I know many people like to think medication is the answer to stopping violence but it is not always.

  4. While I have never had a victim impact statement written about me I have had to listen in therapy while my Mother vented about how I was making life at home hard. That was hard enough….I can’t imagine having to sit through a victim impact statement. Despite what many believe about people with a BPD diagnosis I am extremely empathetic and feel great remorse. If I ever had to listen to one I think I would die from guilt and hate myself so much.

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