As a parent, it sometimes feels like the worry is endless, especially when you send a child off to college for the first time. That’s how I felt when I sent my son Treye off to Cedar Falls when he was 18. Treye was always a good kid, but like any parent, I still worried about alcohol, his studies, and how he would adjust to college. Never in a million years did I think I would need to worry about my son being murdered. But that’s what any person thinks before they’re a victim of a crime - that stuff would never happen to me or my family.
In 2006, Treye was at a party in Cedar Falls when a fight broke out. Treye was not involved in the fight, but when coming to the aid of someone he barely knew, he was tragically stabbed in the heart.
Burying a child is a burden no parent should ever have to bear. Navigating a court system that is built to favor the person who murdered your child is nearly as difficult. In our situation, the breakdown came with notification. In two cases, I was not notified of hearings in Treye’s case. In fact, one of them I became aware about from a friend who texted me.
A crime victims’ rights amendment would bring balance back to the judicial system as far as victims are concerned. We should have as many rights as the perpetrators of crime. These would be very reasonable things like the right to be notified of hearings, the right to be heard in all proceedings and the right to reasonable protection from the accused, among others.
Families and victims who are suffering the loss of a loved one should not feel revictimized by Iowa’s court system, yet that’s what is happening. People who are committing crimes already have their rights enshrined in our state constitution. It's long past time for those who become victims of crime and their families to have reasonable rights as well.
After Shal-Marie was beaten by her husband, she was never notified of any court dates and never told what would happen next. She was left in the dark.
Reuben Neff ran for county attorney because he saw victims who were not being kept informed.
“The worst day of my life wasn’t the day I was sexually assaulted, it was the day I had to be deposed.”
Leigh and Audrey weren’t informed that the man who raped and tried to murder them was out of prison. They were told that “his rights matter more than yours.”
I recently directed a documentary about sex trafficking called Grid Shock which provided me the opportunity to meet with many crime victims and survivors in our state. Ever since meeting with these people, listening to the way they have not only been abused by a criminal but then are treated poorly by our criminal justice system, it has lit a fire in me to speak out about crime victims’ rights.
For a person who becomes the victim of a crime, their life is marked as a before and after. Everything in your life is measured before the incident and after - it changes everything. Who you are, how you see the world, who you trust is all turned upside down. No matter how many good or bad choices a person has made in their life, they never ask to be a victim.
The current law in Iowa may seem adequate. That is until a person is directly impacted, then they realize how broken it really is. Victims going through the criminal justice process are revictimized. The current law in Iowa is not enough. Each and every day victims are falling through the cracks of a system that is set up to fail them. There must be more enforcement and protections for survivors of crime. The answer is an amendment to our state constitution outlining victims’ rights.
These rights would include the right to be heard at trial, the right to be notified of the status of their offender, the right to restitution, among others. Putting these rights in our constitution should not be controversial. It hurts no one. It only brings justice.
Having constitutional rights for victims is imperative in Iowa. Victims and survivors need to know they’re important, they need to know their stories matter and that they’re being listened to. It means everything to these survivors to have a say in their lives when so much has been taken away from them.
Nothing is more common sense than passing a constitutional amendment for crime victims’ rights.
Vanessa McNeal MSW is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder of Story Maven Media, a nonprofit media company elevating social issues through documentary filmmaking.
In 2017, I became the Crime Victim Witness Coordinator for Clay County. On a daily basis I work with victims in our communities – your loved ones, someone you work with, our neighbors. Day in and day out, I work to form a bond with these victims, I know how important it is for them to feel like someone is in their corner, that they’ve been heard and someone is fighting for them.
As a Victim Witness Coordinator, I have countless stories of victims in Clay County of people who will carry the scars of their events with them for the rest of their lives. It is my hope that by the time each case is over, the victim involved has regained some confidence and trust to be able to move forward with their life. I believe there is still much to be done by way of crime victims’ rights in our state and by making victims equal with the defendant in the eyes of the court, they would have a stronger voice and could be heard.
The Iowa Legislature must pass a crime victims’ rights amendment to our state constitution this session.
The rights of the accused are specific and clear in our constitution – the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, among others. Adding a crime victims’ rights amendment to our constitution would do nothing to change those rights, it would simply add rights for the victims.
These enumerated rights are: the right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect, the right to be notified, be present and be heard at court proceedings, the right to reasonable protection from the accused, the right to notification of the release or escape of the accused, the right to restitution and the right to assert these rights in the criminal justice process.
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing a victim’s reaction when the defendant gets sent away. When the court sides with the victim it’s like a weight is lifted off of them and you can actually see it. I know through firsthand experience that the current laws on the books are not good enough for Iowa crime victims. We don’t have to wait to give victims their power back in the system, we can do it today.
Clay County Victim Witness Coordinator
I am a retired law enforcement officer, at both the city and county levels. I spent nearly 40 years in my career, protecting our communities and working with survivors of sex abuse and sexual assault. Countless times I have sat across the table from victims of crime, interviewing them and trying to build a trusting relationship with them as they are reeling from the trauma of what has happened. Absolutely no one asks to be the victim of a crime. Many people do not understand what it’s like when they are thrust into this new reality.
It is through my work in this field that I have come to realize just how much victims are falling through the cracks. As these victims are trying to move on and pick themselves up from a situation they did not ask to be in, they are revictimized by the process all over again. They do not get notified of hearings when they need to be present to help them heal. They are silenced when they deserve to be heard.
The Iowa Legislature must address this problem and elevate victims’ rights to the state constitution. Putting victims’ rights right alongside the rights of the defendant will not diminish those protections, it will only give victims equal footing in terms of the judicial process.
There is no doubt in my mind that the crime victims I have worked with over the years absolutely deserve the right to be protected from the convicted, the right to be heard at trial and the right to be notified of parole or escape of the convicted.
I do not take amending our state constitution lightly. I understand and respect the work that went into developing our state constitution. That being said, amending our state constitution is not a new concept. It has been done to correct injustices at the highest level. I truly believe that is how dire the situation has become for crime victims.
I will continue to advocate to our local legislators and any who will listen. We must pass a crime victims’ rights amendment during the 2020 session.
Former Mahaska Co. Sheriff Deputy, Former President of Sheriff and Deputy Association
“Thank you for letting me come to the capitol with you.”
That was the message we received from Shal, a crime victim survivor and our friend, who devoted her entire Tuesday to traveling to the State Capitol and talking to legislators about the need for a crime victims’ rights amendment in Iowa.
All we could do was hug her and say, “No Shal, thank YOU.”
There is no better person that a legislator can hear from than a constituent, an Iowan who has been thrown into the criminal justice process in our state and has the firsthand experience of what a nightmare it really is.
Since the legislature has started their 2020 session, we are organizing “Takeover Tuesdays” – getting groups of people together who are interested in changing our system for the better, giving crime victims’ constitutional rights.
We understand that not everyone can take time off work or school to drive to Des Moines and talk to their legislator. That’s okay – there are other ways you can get involved. It’s as easy as a click of your mouse to send an email to your legislator, you could pick up the phone and give them a call, you could pull them aside at a local forum in your town, you could even just sign our online petition – no action is too small, no work is too insignificant.
We know brave survivors like Shal are the backbone of this organization. But the rest of us must follow their lead and push for change, for our voices matter too. At any given moment someone we love may become the victim of a crime and be thrown into a criminal justice system that favors the convicted. Now is the time for a crime victims’ rights amendment and we need your help.