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PREPARE NOW FOR DECISION ON VICTIMS' AMENDMENT

This November, Utah voters will get to decide four important ballot measures - whether to limit the terms of their elected leaders, what to do about the interest earned from school trust lands, whether to allow the teaching of religious matters in a non-sectarian way in classrooms and whether to amend the state constitution to include protections for crime victims.

While it may not be the largest ballot ever, these items will require study and thought. The so-called "Declaration of Rights" for Utah crime victims is a particularly important matter that may end up lost in the fight that surely will ensue over term limits. September certainly is not too soon for voters to begin thinking about the concepts at stake.This page has supported the idea of "victims' rights," which unfortunately has been little more than a popular catch phrase among politicians and prosecutors for more than a decade. The ballot measure would finally give meaning to popular rhetoric.

Among other things, it would release victims from the obligation to testify at preliminary hearings unless the judge rules there is a good reason.

This means the victims of particularly painful and humiliating crimes, such as rape and child sexual assault, no longer would have to face further humiliations during a preliminary hearing as they are forced to answer pointed questions from defense attorneys trying to cast doubt on their stories. Often, defense attorneys are most aggressive during these hearings, hoping the victims will drop charges rather than face a repetition of those questions at a trial.

If the measure is approved, the victim's side of the story would be presented at the hearing without the victim being present. And the accused would retain the right to face the accuser at the trial.

The measure likely will be opposed by defense attorneys and others who argue that a preliminary hearing is an important step in deciding the relative strength of a case.

These opponents also likely will object to other parts of the measure, such as its guarantees that victims have a right to a speedy conclusion of the case - a provision designed to limit the number of frivolous appeals before a sentence is carried out - and its provision allowing a broad range of information to be taken into account when sentencing a criminal.

But the preliminary hearing requirement is the heart of the issue. If passed, the amendment will allow hearsay evidence to help determine whether a person stands trial.

That may not be as radical as it sounds. Such evidence was routinely allowed in Utah until a court decision 14 years ago. But it is a proposal with intelligent arguments on both sides.

The founders of our nation and state recognized the importance of protecting the rights of those accused of crime, and they enshrined those rights in their constitutions. This ballot measure seeks to balance those with rights many believe should be inherent to victims.

Voters will decide whether such a declaration will help the judicial system, or whether it will upset the ability of an accused person to get a fair chance to prove his or her innocence.

That is a weighty responsibility. Utahns on both sides need to begin educating voters soon so they can be prepared to make an intelligent choice.