In California, Victims' Families Fight for the Dead
The New York Times by Ian Lovett - August 19, 2011
Harriet Salarno, with a photo of a daughter killed in 1979. She and her daughter Nina Salarno Ashford, right, help represent victims at parole hearings.
SAN DIEGO — The other day, at the sprawling state prison here, Linda and Alfred Tay sat in a cramped, windowless room, just feet from the man serving time for murdering their son. Quarters are close at parole hearings. They listened as the inmate made his case for parole. And then, exercising their rights as victims under California law, the Tays made their own case, pleading with the parole board not to grant freedom to the man who killed their son. It was the second time they had gone through this painful ritual. “We constantly have a shadow hanging over our lives,” Ms. Tay told the commissioners. “When you suffer such a horrific crime, there is never closure.”
The rights of families like the Tays to be heard has been a fundamental tenet of a movement since California passed its first victims’ bill of rights three decades ago — a model that has been followed by states across the nation. Until recently, most of these parole hearings — however difficult they may have been for the family members — had little practical importance: inmates serving life sentences for murder were virtually never set free. Even on the rare occasions when the parole board granted a release, California’s two previous governors — Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican — almost invariably overturned it. But now, with a United States Supreme Court mandate in May to reduce the populations of California’s overcrowded prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown has thus far upheld 207 of the parole board’s 253 decisions to release convicted killers. Already this year, more release dates granted to killers have been allowed to stand than in any year since governors got the power to reverse them.
As a result, these hearings have taken on a new urgency for victims’ family members — many of whom have seen themselves as the last line of defense between a killer and freedom — because inmates are now more likely than ever to be paroled.For some family members, attending the hearings is cathartic, offering a voice to those who feel powerless in the wake of crimes that have upended their lives. But even as victims have gained the right to be heard, the laws have also created unintended consequences — sometimes dividing families or resurrecting traumas year after year. “The emotional experience is beyond words,” said Harriet Salarno, who has spoken at nine parole hearings, beginning in 1993, for the man who killed her daughter 32 years ago. “I’ve thought about not going many times. But I was fearful he would get out.”
Despite an increased possibility of parole, the emotional and financial burdens of attending hearings are too overwhelming for many families. Brandi Cambron, 29, testified last year against parole for her mother, who was convicted of murdering Ms. Cambron’s younger brother. But she did not return this year from her home in Virginia for the hearing near Los Angeles. “As much as it’s fulfilling to go there and speak and be heard, it also reopened all these old wounds that I’d worked so hard to close,” she said.
California has led the way in passing victims’ rights laws. It became the first state to allow victims’ families to speak at parole hearings, and in 1982 passed a victims’ bill of rights — one of the first major pieces of such legislation in the country. More than 30 states have amended their constitutions to include similar measures.
Parole commissioners and victims’ rights advocates say that victim statements can have a major influence. They put a human face on a murder victim, who is often referred to only as “the deceased” during a parole hearing, and make it that much more difficult for the board to grant release.
Some victims who survived murder attempts show their scars — missing limbs or disfiguring burns — while relatives detail the emotional trauma they have endured.
“You need to be there so the board understands what this has done to your life,” said Nina Salarno Ashford, a lawyer with Crime Victims United, a group that helps represent some victims at parole hearings. Ms. Salarno Ashford said the increase in parole grants upheld under Governor Brown makes it all the more important for victims to attend hearings. “The governor seems not to be taking a hard-line stance as Davis or Schwarzenegger did,” she said. “It really highlights the necessity for victims to go to these hearings, so the parole board can feel the full impact of the crime.”
Perhaps no one has gone to as many parole hearings as Debra Tate, the sister of Sharon Tate, who was murdered in 1969 in the Manson Family killings. She has, by her own count, spoken at dozens, perhaps even a hundred parole hearings: almost every one of those held for the Manson killers since the mid-1990s. So far, only one of the members of Charles Manson’s murderous cult has died: Susan Atkins, in 2009. A few weeks before Ms. Atkins’s death, Ms. Tate spoke at her final parole hearing. On the day Ms. Atkins died, Ms. Tate wore all black, in memory of the murder victims. “I cried one long alligator tear,” Ms. Tate said at the event. “It’s still a life lost. She had nieces and nephews. It’s never just about one person.” Over the course of 40 years, the two women had become part of each other’s lives. But Ms. Atkins’s death was not a relief, Ms. Tate said. “There are still so many hearings to go to.”
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