I walked into the courtroom and felt immediately out of place. An odd sensation, especially for a public prosecutor, someone who has made his life’s work fighting for victims within the walls of courthouses throughout Los Angeles County. But those were my courtrooms. This was not.
The Second Appellate Division for the California Court of Appeals conducts its business in beautiful environs. Dark wood walls accent expensive-looking green marble. A meticulously crafted bench carved in a semi-circle provides a dignified stage for the appellate justices who occupy its space. Thick carpet quiets the almost serene tone of the room. But the elegance of the courtroom stands in stark contrast to the horrors described within it.
On April 12, those descriptions were of a beautiful woman being shot to death through the mouth by an egocentric music producer whose persona was marked by money, fame and violence. The case being heard that day was the appeal by Phil Spector of his conviction for murdering Lana Clarkson.
It is ironic—yet befitting—that Lana’s case was scheduled for oral argument during Nation Crime Victims’ Rights Week, when the nation is asked to reflect on the suffering victims endure at the hands of criminals, as well as the courage they and their families often exhibit in the aftermath of the atrocities. No greater tableau of such suffering and courage can be found than in Lana’s case.
First, there is little question that Lana suffered mightily in her last moments of life. Shock, disbelief and paralyzing terror must have been just a few of the myriad emotions she felt. But in addition to Lana’s suffering and courage, there is another part of the story—that of her family, the other victims.
The unnamed victims who emerge in the wake of violent crime are the family members of the fallen. Like so many families, following Lana’s murder her mother Donna Clarkson, her sister Fawn, and her brother Jeff have endured the unthinkable. Not only have they quietly marked Lana’s birthday in silence year upon year, but each passing holiday has been punctuated for them by a visit to a grave site, trying to put salve on a wound that simply will never heal. But the Clarkson family has vowed to concentrate their energies on celebrating Lana’s life rather than reliving her death.
During a time when our communities are urged to recognize the strength that victims of violent crime exemplify, Lana’s family walked into the courtroom as a signal to all involved that the flame of Lana’s memory continues to burn brightly, even when the details of her death are retold. Their fight, their internal struggle, is what National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is all about. The Clarkson family—like thousands of victims’ families across this nation—will not fade quietly into the obscurity of self pity. Rather, they have shown that they will, in the words of Dr. King, “rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.”
It is that hope, that courage, and that strength that should inspire us as a community to never forget the unnamed victims.
THE LOST VOICE
With the strike of a gavel, earlier this week the scheduled execution of convicted rapist and murderer Albert Brown, Jr. was, yet again, delayed. Brown, who abducted, then brutally raped and killed 15-year-old high school student, Susan Jordan, was granted a reprieve from his 1982 death sentence, this time by California’s high court.
The reason? The date on one of the drugs (sodium thiopental) that makes up the lethal cocktail in California would have been expired—by three hours—at the time of injection. Ridiculously, the drug, once expired, cannot be resupplied to the Department of Corrections until early next year.
Much of the press coverage surrounding this fiasco has focused on Brown, the courts, the governor’s office, and the myriad voices that use this latest delay to punctuate their opposition to the death penalty.
But whose voice is missing? What of that innocent little girl, Susan, who spent the last moments of her short life looking into the face of a monster, who was doing the unthinkable to her? What of her unanswered screams for help, her ignored pleas for mercy? What of the unspeakable terror that child suffered in her last hours and minutes and seconds of life? Where is Susan’s voice in the cacophony?
When these discussions fall to the more academic—appellate processes, clemency hearings, emergency stays—what is lost is the true barometer of right and wrong. It is too easy to forget those who were victimized, who suffered, and who died. It is too easy to allow their pleas for justice to become faint mournful cries barely audible over that strike of the court’s gavel.
And that is simply wrong.
To be sure, the appellate process is necessary to ensure the rights of the accused are fully and fairly protected. Only then can justice truly be served. But of late, this process has become perverted.
In California, average wait times from conviction to execution approach a quarter of a century. This only works to the criminals’ advantage. The passage of time dulls our sense of empathy for the true victims, and twenty-five years after the fact, the only vocal advocates are those fighting for the killer. Albert Brown is merely the latest in a long line of murderers who are benefitting from our legal system’s inaction and inability to carry out the will of the jury. How many more will there be?
We as a society owe it to the fallen victims to give them back their voice, to hear their pleas for justice, and to employ the will of the People with purpose and with certitude.
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