It wasn’t long ago when crime victims were expected to be mute and stoic in court at sentencing and in parole hearings. It was akin to “be seen and not heard.”
No more. We’re finally permitted to speak open before sentencing if we choose to. A parent or legal guardian can speak on behalf of a child.
What’s the Purpose of A Victim Impact Statement (VIS)?
A victim impact statement gives input to the judge about an appropriate sentence for the crime following conviction.
However, a little-known fact from research is that judges rarely use VIS in making decisions (1. Davis, R. & Smith, B. 2006).
Why? Because VIS seldom addresses the question at hand: “What is an appropriate sentence for this crime by this person?” Too many VIS are just tirades.
Understand that the VIS becomes part of the trial documents and is public. In most states, the convict may keep a copy of your statement if you agree. For this reason, it is not wise to have your address on it.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS:
Seldom considered (but important) is how you look when you deliver it. Dress as you would for a job interview. Don’t come in sandals, shorts, stained shirt, low cut dress or with an excessive amount of makeup and jewelry. Look business-like.
VIS can be spoken from the heart, spontaneously (as in the YouTube video below).
VIS can be read from a prepared statement directly by the victim.
VIS can be read from a prepared statement by someone of the victim’s choosing.
VIS can be written and submitted to the judge or parole board privately. Parole boards usually want them at least two weeks ahead of the hearing. Officials do have the right to interrupt you if your statement is false, becomes threatening or is tangential.
It’s a good idea to keep VIS short. Try to stay under 7 minutes or two pages (less is better).
You may include or show a relevant photograph.
Sometimes the office of your prosecutor has materials on what input they are seeking.
If you want to write your recommendations, a possible structure would be:
- First paragraph introduce yourself (the crime victim) and your relationship; with the deceased.
- Second paragraph a 2-3 sentence summary of the crime. Include convict’s name.
- Third paragraph describes how the crime impacts you/ your family.
- Last paragraph is your sentence recommendation. Keep in mind the judge or parole board has sentence guidelines (maximum and minimum).
Do keep in mind that judges and parole boards have guidelines they must follow in making their decisions.
Do personalize your VIS. Be specific about how the crime impacted you or your family. If you would like to share the emotional impact, describe:
- how your ability to relate to others has changed (including strangers and coworkers).
- any counseling, or other support you have obtained.
- costs incurred for counseling or therapy for you and your family.
- important details of the crime you want the officials to know.
If you or your family were injured in the crime you may want to mention:
- the specific physical injuries suffered.
- how long the injuries lasted and prognosis.
- what recommended additional medical treatment you may need and the cost.
- your inability to work and lost wages.
If your property was damaged, you may want to mention
- what was damaged
- cost to fix it
- inconveniences sustained during recovery (like living in a motel)
- how long the repairs took
Do describe the deceased. Who were they? What did they mean to the community?
Do give your recommendation for sentencing with a rationale for that recommendation. (See sample VIS below)
Do proofread your written statement for errors.
Do not waste time venting. (It has little to do with decisions that officials must make.)
Do not threaten the convict verbally or physically.
It’s not a great idea to make comments (good or bad) about what you thought about the court proceedings.
Do not get dramatic. (One family sprinkled cremated ashes around the courtroom.)
Do not ask for an apology or confession from the convict.
Do not make false statements. (The judge may or may not swear you in.)
Do not address the convict directly without permission. Focus on the judge or parole panel.
Do not repeat yourself.
- First paragraph should explain who you are as the crime victim and who the deceased was.
- Second paragraph could be to give a summary of the crime, as the court already knows the facts. Be sure to include convict’s name.
- Next paragraphs describe how the crime impacted you/ your family.
- Last paragraph is your sentence recommendation. Keep in mind the judge has sentence guidelines for a conviction (minimum to maximum)
The Honorable___________ (Judge’s name)
Name of Court
Address of Court
Re: State of New York vs. _________ convict’s name; case #___
My name is Jack Smith. I’m the father of murder victim, Hailey Smith, who was murdered on January 21st of last year by the defendant, Tim Adams. Hailey was only 14. Here is her photograph.
January 21st was a Friday. My daughter was carrying out a homework assignment for her photography class, which was her favorite. Her dream was to be a CSI investigator doing photography for law enforcement. The class had been asked to take a picture of the snow in a way that made it contrast with other items in the photograph.
So, Hailey thought it would be a good idea to do this assignment in the woods behind the old Stuart-Bell Sawmill off South Allen Road. She was supposed to go with a friend, but her friend had to babysit and couldn’t make it. Haley went into the woods around 3:45 p.m. She knew the sun would start to set in about an hour. She called us to say she’d be back by 5:00 in time for dinner. She was always responsible. But, Hailey never came. This man here strangled her to death with a rope. He strangled our Hailey who was defenseless, who didn’t even know him.
Hailey’s death impacted many people. Her grandmother has lost interest in life and even gave up church. She asked us to take care of her cat.
Our little boy, Hailey’s brother, is only 7. He’s been sleeping with me and my wife ever since this happened. He doesn’t want to go to school anymore. His grades have slipped. He said he wants to quit band and Future Farmers of America.
And then there’s my wife, Tina. She’s always been a good wife and mom. Her doctor said she has a heart condition brought on by stress. Tina isn’t eating good. She’s quiet. She spends all weekend in bed and has been absent from work a lot. We don’t talk like we used to.
As for me… Well, I feel like I’ve failed as a father. I was supposed to protect my family. I should have said Hailey couldn’t go to those woods alone. I will always regret that. I let our family down. I don’t think we will ever be the same.
Hailey did things for the community. She volunteered as a dog walker for elderly people or people recovering from surgery. She did that twice a month. She babysat regularly for 3 families. She played violin in the community orchestra.
As for the sentence… Well, Your Honor, we would like you to give the defendant the harshest punishment under the law for what he did. Hailey suffered. She was no threat. She only weighed 105 pounds. Tim Adams has been in trouble before, starting back from when he was 14. His first conviction was for torturing animals, then for arson in a cemetery. He quit high school in 10th grade and has never worked. He lives with his 89-year-old grandmother. He doesn’t deserve to be free anytime soon. He’s a danger to the community. He has no remorse. If he killed once, he may kill again.
1. Davis, R., & Smith, B. (2006). Effects of victim impact statements on sentencing decision: A test in an urban setting. Justice Quarterly, 11(3), 453–469.