Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Victims on Trial

By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

In May of 1983, Barry Bronstein arrived at the home of his parents. Inside, he found their lifeless, mutilated bodies. Irvin Bronstein, 78, and his wife Rose, 75, had each been bound and stabbed 12 times. A suspect, John Booth, was arrested, tried, and convicted for the murders. During the sentencing, Bronstein was allowed to tell the jury how the murder of his parents had affected him. The jury gave Booth the death penalty. In June of this year, the Supreme Court reversed the decision saying that the use of "victim impact statements" was unconstitutional in capital cases.

The Supreme Court's decision dealt the burgeoning, nationwide victim's rights movement a stunning blow. Defenders of victim's rights claim that the criminal justice system, in its zeal to protect the rights of the accused, has unjustly shut out victims and their families. Others applaud the court's decision, claiming that statements from victims distract us from the proper focus of the trial and result in arbitrary sentencing. Both sides base their claims on moral grounds.

The stand taken by victim's rights groups is based on their moral belief that individuals should be punished for all of the injuries their actions inflicted. The harm inflicted by a murder, they point out, extends beyond what is done to the victim. The murderer also inflicts terrible pain on the victim's family and friends. A murderer, then, must be held accountable for the devastating effects of his or her crime and punished accordingly. To ensure that a jury gives due weight to the degree of harm caused by the murderer in determining the degree of punishment to be inflicted, a testimony describing the impact of the crime on the victim's family is absolutely required.

Supporters of the Supreme Court's decision argue that individuals should be held accountable only for the harms they willfully and freely cause. To hold a murderer responsible for the impact of the crime on the victim's family is to hold that person accountable for circumstances over which he or she had no control. The fact that the victim's family is bereaved cannot be attributed to an act of will on the part of the accused. Such irrelevant testimony should have no bearing on the jury's decision and should not be allowed in a rule of court.

Secondly, supporters argue, every human life is equally valuable. To consider victim's statements in determining punishment for a crime is to treat some people as less valuable than other people. Is it worse to take the life of a mother of four than the life of someone with no family? Obviously notÑand punishment for this crime should recognize no such distinctions.

Finally, supporters of the recent decision argue that fairness requires that sentences be imposed in a consistent, rather than arbitrary, manner. Allowing victim-impact statements to influence sentencing would greatly increase the risk of arbitrarily imposed sentences. Whether the accused lives or dies would come to depend on how eloquently a victim's family was able to articulate their grief. Such arbitrariness cannot be tolerated in a court of law.

Should punishment for capital crimes, then, take into account the testimony of relatives of victims? Our verdict will rest on which moral values we think are more important: the value of holding people responsible for all of the harmful consequences of their actions, or the values of fairness, equality, and holding people responsible only for the harm they intended.