A bill designed to help alleviate the suffering of crime victims' families has passed the West Virginia House of Delegates and will now be considered by the state Senate.
House Bill 2451, solely sponsored by Lewis County Delegate Peggy Donaldson Smith, will allow for judges to hear a victim's impact statement from family members of someone killed as the result of crime, even if the case is reduced to a misdemeanor.
Presently, only families of victims killed as the result of felonies are allowed to make statements.
"I believe if a death occurs during the commission of a crime, that family deserves to tell the judge the impact the crime had on them," Smith said. "Under my bill, the victim or his or her family can either make an oral statement to the judge, of if (they) choose, a written statement could be presented to the probation officer."
Lewis County has had similar situations in recent years where the death of someone has occurred, and the prosecutor bargained the case down to a misdemeanor because of evidentiary reasons. One such case was reduced for two men accused in a beating death. Because the autopsy report revealed a heart problem in the victim and said the beating had nothing to do with the cause of death, the murder charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
"I decided, after serving as a criminal defense attorney for a few years, that victims and their families should have a voice in the case," Smith said. "Courts are frightening places for people who don't spend much time there. I believe this makes the courts more user-friendly and more accommodating to the public."
The bill also requires local prosecutors to make reasonable efforts to notify victims or their families of their right to make a victim's impact statement. The rule also extends to the fiduciary of the victim's estate and to the guardians of any minor children.
"Crime leaves a lasting legacy for everyone involved," Smith said. "This bill is offered to help ease the pain of the victims of crime."