by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – On TV, crime dramas focus on smart-as-a-whip prosecuting attorneys, tough-as-nails police detectives and wise judges. In real life, there are more pieces to the judicial puzzle that make the system work.
Defense lawyers are important enough to the justice system that having one is a constitutional right. Whether you can pay the bill or not, you will receive the services of a public defender if charged with certain crimes.
Crime victims and their families have a larger role in our justice system than you may realize. They are more involved than just providing the news reporters with a sound bite to explain how they feel after a conviction, deadlocked jury or acquittal. In Missouri, there is an advocacy group just for victims of crime.
Many Missourians may not be happy to know they are paying to defend someone who is accused of a crime, including Craig Michael Wood. He’s the man charged with adducting and killing ten-year-old Hailey Owens in Springfield earlier this month.
Despite prosecution objections, Wood is being defended by a tax-funded public defense attorney. Prosecutors say he has a trust fund worth a million dollars and should pay for his own defense. The judge assigned him a public defender, anyway.
Wood could face the death penalty if convicted.
Missouri’s Public Defender Office has a division specifically for capital murder cases.
“The justice system is not perfect. It needs someone like a public defender who has the time and the time and the opportunity and the knowledge and the training to really sort out what’s going on in the case, to aggressively file motions and investigate whether or not what’s in the police reports is even accurate.
“Frequently, it’s not.”
Kraft believes that publicly funded defense lawyers are important in the effort to have equal justice for all. She cautions against assuming that only society’s dangerous members benefit from public defenders.
“You never know when someone you know if going to be in that situation [accused of a crime]. Protecting their rights and their liberty interest is protecting us all.”
Not everyone accused of a crime qualifies to have a public defender work for them. Some who are represented by a public defender are required to pay at least part of the cost. The state has a formula to determine eligibility. Before that is considered, to be considered for a public defender a defendant must be facing at least the possibility of jail time if convicted.
On the other side of the bar in a courtroom often sits the victims of the crime and/or their family. The Missouri Victim Assistance Network works on their behalf.
Ideally, crime victims should be told of their rights and about advocates for them early into the process – as quickly as possible once an investigation of a crime begins. MOVA’s Kelly Campbell says that sometimes gets overlooked when time is crucial to solving crimes and because of overwhelming caseloads for police and prosecutors.
She says it’s important for crime victims to know their rights and to exercise them.
“When a crime occurs and an investigation is completed, you have paper and ink in a folder that ends up in a prosecutor’s office and eventually in court. That’s pretty sterile. It does not tell the whole story, it doesn’t tell the whole story about what the victim experienced and has continued to experience since making the report and it doesn’t tell the whole story about the defendant.”
That advocacy helps the entire process and pursuit of justice, according to Campbell.
“It doesn’t just benefit the victim to have a voice in the courtroom. It benefits the sentencing tribunal, whether that’s a judge or a jury, to hear from a victim.”
Campbell also believes it can help the criminals in the case. By being forced to face their victims, she says, some offenders are able to take responsibility for their actions in a more genuine way and have the incentive to make the changes needed in their lives.
Obviously, not all criminals will have that kind of life change but, for some, seeing those impacted by the crime makes them want to change.
Knowing that victims have legal rights in the justice process is crucial to everyone, according to Campbell and MOVA. Campbell explains the numbers on crime that should be a wakeup call to everyone who thinks they will never have to worry about criminal court.
“The last study I saw suggested that 80% of all Americans will be a victim of crime at some point in their lives.”
On the web:
Missouri Public Defenders Office: http://www.publicdefender.mo.gov/
Missouri Victim Assistance Network: www.MOVAnet.org