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Advocates, police derail bill they say discounts Utah crime victims

In this April 11, 2014 file photo, Rep. LaVar Christensen, author of Amendment 3, speaks at a press conference to thank Utah's legal team for their defense of Utah's constitutional Amendment 3 before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals at the State Capitol
In this April 11, 2014 file photo, Rep. LaVar Christensen, author of Amendment 3, speaks at a press conference to thank Utah's legal team for their defense of Utah's constitutional Amendment 3 before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Victims' rights advocates derailed legislation Tuesday that they say would undermine hard-fought laws designed to make sure crime victims have a voice in the judicial system.

Several dozen victims, victim advocates, prosecutors, academics and police packed the House Judiciary Committee meeting to oppose HB399, sponsored by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper.

After hearing from the group outside the meeting, Christensen agreed to set the bill aside for study over the summer.

"We're a pretty tight-knit group here. We want to protect victims of crime. The defendants have a number of rights through the criminal justice process. The Constitution has 23 mentions of defendants' rights. There's nothing for victims," said Terryl Warner, head the Cache County Attorney's Office victim services program.

Christensen proposed adding provisions to the state's victims' rights law that require victims, witnesses and victim advocates to be advised of the consequences of making false allegations. The bill would limit the role of people who work with police agencies on behalf of crime victims. It would affirm that defendants are presumed innocent until proved guilty and entitled to due process.

He said he wants to balance the rights of defendants and victims in the judicial process.

"The true intent was to continue to make great strides in this area but uphold the Constitution while we're doing it and guard against any false criticisms," Christensen said.

But opponents argue that Utah's victims' rights amendment doesn't need changing, and particularly shouldn't include defendants' rights, which are found other places in the law.

"It's disrespectful," said University of Utah law professor and former federal judge Paul Cassell, who helped write the victims' rights law. "This is a solution looking for a problem."

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said laws sufficiently safeguard criminal defendants' rights but victims feel alienated and lost in the justice system.

"Defendants choose victims. Victims don't choose their defendants," he said.

The legislation suggested that prosecutors aren't mindful of defendants' rights and that victim advocates and victims' rights are compromising the integrity of prosecutions, Gill said, adding that's "absolutely false."

Victims of horrific crimes just want to survive the court proceedings, he said.

"They simply want to be heard," Gill said. "They don't want to be shamed by the process."

Warner said the bill attempted to take power from victim advocates, limiting them to working only with people involved in criminal cases.

Advocates, for example wouldn't have been able to help with survivors of two people a man shot and killed in Cache County before turning the gun on himself, she said.

Warner and others raised their concerns with Christensen the past week before coming out in force for the committee meeting.

"I think he took a step back and said, 'Wait a minute,'" Warner said.

Christensen agreed to work with the state's Victims Rights Council, made up of victims, victim advocates, prosecutors and police, to look at any possible changes to the law before proposing any legislation next year.

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