THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
FIRST ANNUAL SYMPOSIUM ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
ON TUESDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2002
I’m delighted to be here for this important discussion, and I want to join in thanking you for helping the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to examine both our progress and our path for the future in addressing domestic violence and other violence against women.
Ending the terror of domestic violence is a top priority for all of us at the Department of Justice. As Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, of which the Office on Violence Against Women (OVAW) is a part, I have pledged to do everything I can to further federal, state, and local efforts to combat violence against women.
This issue has long been both a professional and a personal interest of mine. When I served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, and before that as Chief Counsel to the prosecuting attorney in Marion County, Indiana, I spent years advocating for victims of domestic violence and other crimes of violence against women. I worked to strengthen state laws, increase local victim assistance resources, and was instrumental in establishing much-needed transitional housing for victims of domestic violence in Indianapolis.
At the Department of Justice, I’m working to focus our many resources on ending violence against women, assisting its victims, and holding accountable its perpetrators. I personally know that, without these types of programs and support, many families are doomed to lives of desperation.
With the help of our federal initiatives, and the work of criminal justice officials, victim advocates, and people like you all across the country, we have made considerable progress in addressing domestic violence and other violence against women. But we still have a long way to go to end the terror of violence in our homes and communities.
I’d like to briefly mention several areas that I believe need further attention in our efforts to prevent violence against women, to ensure services for victims, and to hold offenders accountable.
First, we need to make sure that domestic violence and other criminal justice policy is driven by research rather than assumption or anecdote. Research has taught us so much about domestic violence and how to prevent and respond to these cases. But often, we don’t use these research findings to shape our policy and practice.
For example, when I was a Marion County prosecutor, our office took part in a landmark experiment that tested the effects of alternative criminal justice policies in preventing further abuse in misdemeanor wife battery cases. The study found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, women victims were significantly more likely to be safe from continuing violence when the perpetrator was arrested under a victim-initiated warrant AND victims were given the option of whether or not to drop the charges. The study authors discovered that giving victims a choice empowers them and gives them leverage in bargaining for their safety.
Despite these almost 20-year-old findings, many jurisdictions today still have no-drop policies in effect, and many victim advocates still believe such policies are needed to protect battered women from further abuse. We need to work harder to get research findings like these to policy makers so that research can be put into practice.
We also need to develop specific conditions for bail in domestic violence cases. The defendant's prior record and record of failure to appear in court are essentially irrelevant in these cases. Instead, we need to develop standards for bail that take into account the risk of injury to the victim or others in the community if the defendant is released.
In Indiana, for example, we were able to get legislation passed that requires the court to take into consideration at bail the risk the release poses to persons in the community. This is an important safeguard for the victims of domestic violence.
We also need to pass a federal Constitutional Amendment to ensure that the rights of victims of violent crime are fully protected.
The Victims Rights Amendment now pending in the United States Congress would ensure that a victim’s rights are considered just as much as the defendant’s, and that victims have the right to be notified of hearings and schedule changes, the right to make a statement at sentencing, and the right to decisions that duly consider the victim’s safety.
One important victim right we must work harder to ensure is the opportunity to make an impact statement at sentencing, particularly in death penalty cases. In 1991 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling and found that the admission of victim impact statements in capital cases was constitutional.
And in 1997, Congress passed the Victim Rights Clarification Act to amend the federal criminal code to ensure that victims in all federal cases had the right to make a victim impact statement at sentencing. Yet some states continue to prohibit the use of victim impact statements in death penalty cases.
We need every state to take action to ensure victims’ right to be heard at sentencing in these cases. And we need judges and other criminal justice practitioners to become more sensitive to the devastating effects of crime on victims and the community at large and to ensure victim participation at trials.
One critical factor in increasing victim participation in the criminal justice process is simply to let victims know what’s going on. With today’s advanced technology, victim notification can be sent at the touch of a button via e-mail, electronic phone messaging, fax, or a web site. There’s no longer any reason to fear that respecting the victim’s rights involves a tradeoff either with the defendant’s rights or the prosecutor’s efficiency. We just have to work smarter and take advantage of available technology – like the VINE system, which stands for Victim Information and Notification Everyday.
VINE is a computerized victim information and notification system developed in 1994. Today, VINE is used by 1,400 communities and 24 state Departments of Correction. But only 15 states have statewide systems that link all criminal justice system components to keep victims fully informed of developments in their cases.
Finally, we need to increase DNA analysis capabilities throughout the nation and ensure that this data is entered into CODIS – the national DNA database. Hundreds of thousands of DNA samples from crime scenes and from offenders await analysis in evidence storage lockers and forensic laboratories across the country. The longer this evidence goes unanalyzed, the longer the crimes to which it relates go unsolved. And for victims of crime, justice delayed is truly justice denied.
Here at Justice, we have developed a strategic plan involving every aspect of DNA technology in order to revolutionize law enforcement, better serve victims, and prevent future victimization by catching serial rapists and murderers before they can victimize again.
As I saw first-hand when I was a state and federal prosecutor, a DNA match can bring a powerful sense of closure and relief to victims of violent crime. Let me tell you the story of just one victim, and the impact DNA evidence had on her case and her life.
In 1989, Debbie Smith was abducted from her home in Virginia, dragged to a wooded area, and brutally raped. During the rape, her attacker told her, “Remember, I know where you live and I’ll come back and kill you if you tell anyone.”
When allowed to return home, Debbie just wanted to take a shower and wash away the pain, not knowing that in doing so she’d also wash away critical DNA evidence. But her police officer husband convinced her to notify the police and to visit a hospital where trained medical personnel could examine her and collect physical evidence that might identify the rapist.
Debbie experienced 6-1/2 years of anguish as police continued to pursue her case with no results. Her life was consumed by fear. She was always looking over her shoulder, waiting for her attacker to come back and kill her.
Finally, in 1995, Debbie’s long nightmare ended when a forensic scientist discovered a match with the DNA database. Her attacker was in jail, serving time for abduction and robbery.
As Debbie described her feelings, “For the first time in six and half years, I could feel myself breathe. I felt validated. It was a real name and a real face to go with the nightmare. . . . Finally I could quit looking over my shoulder. . . .Within myself, the healing had begun and peace had come at last.”
Debbie learned later that her assailant had gone to jail only months after raping her. Because of a backlog in Virginia’s DNA database, she waited 6 years to hear about it.
This case illustrates the tremendous role DNA can play in solving crimes and bringing peace of mind and justice to crime victims. But it also illustrates the critical need to increase our capacity to analyze DNA in criminal cases. I encourage you to work with us toward this critical goal.
As we commemorate Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it’s important that we keep efforts to combat violence against women at the top of our national agenda, not just every October, but throughout every month of the year, every day, every hour.
I want to thank you for your commitment to ending the terror of violence in our homes and communities. And I look forward to working with you. Thank you.