Victim statements: are they having the wrong impact?

In an episode of The West Wing from 2002, the (fictional) US President. Jed Bartlet, prepares for a presidential debate by considering how he should answer a question designed to challenge his opposition to capital punishment: “If your youngest daughter, Zoe, was raped and murdered, would you not want to see the man responsible put to death?”

Is a murderer more culpable if the victim is loved than if he has yet to find love?

The best answer, his adviser suggests, is to say that he would want the perpetrator to suffer a cruel and unusual death, which is why it’s probably a good idea that fathers of murder victims don’t have legal rights in these situations.

I was reminded of that exchange by news reports today that the parents of a murder victim overheard the judge say that impact statements made by bereaved families make “no difference”. The judge was speaking in the context of parole assessment, not the original sentence, but he has started a wider debate.

The judge was unaware that the parents could hear him and, far from dismissing their feelings, was full of empathy. The overheard remarks have been reported as: “I feel so very sorry for these families. They make these statements thinking they are going to make a difference, but they make no difference at all. Someone should tell them.” Someone now has.

Since learning of this incident, I have heard two interviews today with bereaved parents of murder victims. One was grateful that the criminal justice system had allowed her a voice in the judicial process which, in all other respects, had treated her as having no part. The other was distressed that the effort and emotion which had been expended on preparing a statement had apparently all been for nothing.

What are we to make of these victim impact statements (or “victim personal statements”, to give them their correct name in the English legal system)? Are they simply an opportunity to be heard – a chance to say “there were victims of this crime, not just statistics”? Or are these statements supposed to be part of the sentencing process: if we don’t know how much was suffered, how can we determine an appropriate punishment?

Few would argue that the punishment must fit the crime. But is it the criminal act that the punishment must fit or the consequences of the criminal act? Is a murderer more culpable if the victim is loved than if he has yet to find love? Should the punishment be increased if the family are able to speak eloquently of their loss, but not if they struggle for the right words? Is that any way to do justice?