Profile: Personal Tragedy Gives Rise to Champion of Victims' Rights
With the murder of his son, Richard Pompelio decided to devote his life to helping crime victims and their families.
Name: Richard Pompelio
Back-story: Life changed forever for Richard Pompelio on February 12, 1989, when his 17-year old son Tony was stabbed to death as he came to the aid of a female friend at a party. This tragedy led Pompelio to change his career and devote his life to helping other crime victims and their loved ones.
Title: Founder of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center and leader of the victim civil litigation department with the law firm DiFrancesco Bateman.
What he’s best known for: Pompelio has been a tireless crusader for victims rights for more than 20 years. Along with his wife Ann, Pompelio founded the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center in 1992. The impetus was their experience with the criminal justice system following Tony’s murder. The Pompelios found that victims of violent crime often wound up victimized a second time by the justice system. The NJCVLC was the first of its kind in the United States and has served as a model for other pro bono victims law clinics in other states.
Pompelio also served as chairman of the state Victims of Crime Compensation Board in the mid-2000s, leaving that post in September 2005 to return his full attention to the victims’ law center, where he said his work is more necessary than ever due to cutbacks in the state budget. “Direct services to victims have pretty much dissipated,” Pompelio said. “Battered women, sexual assault victims still get help. But someone who comes in with another problem, they send them to me.”
Why he made news recently: Last June, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling that broadened victims rights in several ways. It found that a criminal defendant does not have the right to skip his sentencing hearing unless the judge gives his approval. The court agreed with the mother of a murder victim who argued as a friend of the court that her right to deliver a victim’s impact statement is the most important right victims have in the state and it would become meaningless if the defendant could choose not to attend the sentencing.
Pompelio represented the mother of Alyssa Ruggieri, who was shot at age 22. The case is believed to be the first time a state high court put conditions on a defendant’s right to not attend his sentencing. It also validated the victim’s right to make an amicus argument in the case, which had been brought by the Sussex County prosecutor’s office, which should help other victims initiate actions to enforce their rights. Pompelio called it the most important victims’ rights case in state history. That was one of two cases he got to argue this year before the Supreme Court, which is always a treat for a lawyer. “Justice Rabner is the first chief justice who has allowed us, as amicus, to come in and make an argument,” Pompelio said.
Why New Jerseyans should care about what he has done: Before 1991, New Jersey had a system for compensating crime victims, and victims had certain legal rights. But the rights of victims took a back seat to those of criminals. In 1990, for instance, defense lawyers in the resentencing of serial killer James Koedatich had tried to get victim Amie Hoffman’s mother banned from the courthouse. A judge found that to be too extreme, but Florence Hoffman was forced to sit in the back row of the courtroom, where she had difficulty hearing due to hearing loss, so her presence would not prejudice the jury. Often, victims were not informed about proceedings involving their cases, except when they were needed to testify, or when the convicted criminal was being released from jail. New Jersey had recently enacted a Crime Victim Bill of Rights, but without any real training for judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement, the rights largely went ignored.
In 1989, victims’ groups formed the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Coalition and began pushing for a constitutional amendment to guarantee victims’ rights, reasoning that only by putting victims rights into the constitution, where the rights of the accused are written, would they be upheld. Neither the governor, nor the attorney general supported the effort. It would take two years to convince both houses of the Legislature and the governor to support it. Pompelio served as counsel to the victims coalition and was one of its leaders. In 1991, the amendment was placed on the ballot and passed overwhelmingly. The amendment was relatively simple, guaranteeing victims the right to be treated with “fairness, compassion and respect” by the court and to be present at most court hearings, but it marked a watershed moment in the treatment of victims in the state. Pompelio then embarked on a quest to educate and train prosecutors and court staff. “What has happened is what I had hoped would happen: We have a whole new breed of assistant prosecutors who are victim-sensitive,” Pompelio said. He also wrote a book on victims rights that he distributes for free.
What else he has done: While chairman of the VCCB, which awarded compensation to victims, Pompelio made a host of changes that eliminated a large case backload, cut the amount of time it took to process a claim from more than a year to a couple of months, and boosted both the percentage of claims settled and the total amount paid out in claims.
What he’s doing today: Two years ago, Pompelio joined the law firm headed by former Senate President Donald DiFrancesco, who served as governor, and Assemblyman Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset). There, he is leading a group of four lawyers, including his youngest son Nicholas, in a crime victim civil litigation practice group, the first established by a major law firm. The group’s goal is to win monetary damages for victims. “They liked the idea” of a crime victim group within the firm, Pompelio said of DiFrancesco and Bateman. “They treat us so well.”
Pompelio, who estimates he has represented some 10,000 victims across the state during his career, spends the rest of his time working pro bono at the crime victims law center, helping people like Michele Ruggieri negotiate her way through the justice system. He said the center no longer gets any grant assistance, so he is a one-man practitioner, answering all the calls that come in -- as many as 15 new requests for help a day. It’s a lot of work, especially for someone who is of retirement age. “Part of me says, when are you going to stop doing this?” Pompelio said. “It’s not like someone is going to replace me. You can’t make a living doing this.” But, he is, “doing what I love to do, and I will keep doing it as long as I can pay the bills.”
What you don’t know about him: Pompelio and the NJCVLC have received 48 awards and recognitions for their work for crime victims.