Senate moves to enshrine victims’ rights in KY

FRANKFORT – Twenty-three thousand seven hundred eighty-five is the total number of felony cases that resulted in convictions last year alone in Kentucky.

“For every one of those almost 24,000 cases there is at least one victim,” Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said before the Kentucky Senate passed Senate Bill 3 – dubbed the crime victims’ bill of rights – by a 34-1 vote this afternoon. “And for many of those, there is more than one victim. And right now in Kentucky, those victims have inadequate rights or no rights at all in a criminal justice system that is designed to do justice.”

Westerfield, who introduced SB 3, said some of the rights it seeks to enshrine in the state Constitution include the right to notice of all criminal court proceedings involving the accused, reasonable protection from the accused, timely notice of the release or escape of the accused and the right to full restitution to be paid by the convicted.

“There are some who say this destroys the rights of the accused,” Westerfield said in response to previously voiced opposition of SB 3. “I’m assuming they haven’t read the current version of the bill because it actually preserves those rights.”

After the floor vote, Majority Floor Leader Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said Westerfield had worked on the bill for more than two years.

“It is not without symbolism that it is the first bill passed by the Senate this session,” Thayer said. The vote comes on the seventh workday of a 60-day session where the state’s 24-month budget will be crafted.

Thayer also acknowledged several crime victims and their families gathered in the Senate gallery to witness the vote on SB 3. At a meeting of the Senate State & Local Government Committee earlier in the day, one of those family members testified about how the murder of her brother in 2000 changed the trajectory of her life.

“My family and I had to stumble our way through the justice system for each of the four who participated in the murder,” said Melissa Buchanan, sister of murder victim Marvin Charlie Prater. “Our local newspaperman was my victim’s advocate because that is how I learned of court dates.”

She said she wasn’t even notified when some of the defendants were released pending trial.

“They began calling my home and threatening me and my family,” said Buchanan, adding that she was pregnant at the time. “I was told that there was nothing that could be done.”

She said all four were found guilty but two have already been released from custody.

Testifying against SB 3 at the committee hearing was Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“This bill will not hold the (justice) system accountable but will reduce the constitutional rights of accused persons,” she said. “What we ought to do is make sure prosecutors enforce the laws already on the books designed to protect the rights of victims.”

SB 3 is part of a national movement to pass so-called Marsy’s Laws. Marsy Nicholas was killed in the 1980s by her ex-boyfriend in California.

SB 3 now goes to the state House for consideration. If it is approved by both chambers, it would still need to be approved by voters in November before being enacted.