On a day set aside to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the constitutional rights won by crime victims, the New Jersey Senate passed four bills designed to further help those who are hurt get justice and better treatment by the court system.
About 100 victims and advocates gathered on the steps of the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday to push for passage of the bills and to recall the long effort in the 1980s by a handful of victims that led to the passage in 1991 of the state Crime Victims Rights Amendment. Attorney Richard Pompelio, who took up the cause after the murder of his son Anthony and continues to fight for the rights of victims, led the rally and was honored by the state Senate for his work.
"Rich is the heart and soul of this movement," said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), addressing the rally prior to the Senate vote. "Rich understands all kinds of victims."
And in the crowd was a diverse group of victims: Men in suits and mothers in T-shirts bearing the photos of their murdered children, those who were sexually assaulted, battered, or killed by gun violence. There was also the widow of murdered New Jersey State Trooper Philip Lamonaco.
"It's absolutely amazing how far we have come," said Donna Lamonaco, whose husband was shot and killed by two radicals he had stopped for a traffic violation in 1981. Lamonaco, like so many others, said at the time that she felt victimized a second time by the court system and got through it with the support of Pompelio and others in the movement. "For these last 25 years, many of us have survived because of the laws ... Now we are just standing tall and powerful."
Three of the other leaders of the movement have died. James O'Brien of Morris County and Richard Kramer of Warren became passionate in fighting for victims' rights after their daughters were murdered in the 1980s. And Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, a Morris County Republican, worked with the group and sponsored the constitutional amendment. The Crime Victims Bill of Rights has been renamed in his honor.
"After becoming aware of the harsh treatment our friend (Pompelio) and so many others received in the system, my late husband joined the grassroots movement to establish a set of," said Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris), who took her husband's seat after his death. "I will continue to fight for the rights of crime victims."
The bipartisan bill package passed by the Senate would address a wide range of problems currently not covered by the Crime Victims Bill of Rights and other measures enacted that spell out how victims are to be treated by the court system and the state's:
would amend the state's anti-discrimination laws to give crime victims protected status and thus protect against discrimination in the workplace and in housing.
would allow certain non-victims, such as the teacher or coach of a victim, to make an in-person statement at sentencing. Currently only victims — defined as blood relatives and, within the last year, civil union partners — are guaranteed the right to make impact statements in the sentencing phase of court proceedings. It would also give victims of sexual assault and homicide survivors the right to be present at certain proceedings after sentencing, including hearings to determine a sex offender's risk of re-offense on release.
would remove the restriction that a witness be 16 years of age or younger to testify via closed circuit television in trials for certain sex crimes and witnesses of any age to testify via CCTV in certain cases, including those related to a crime involving domestic violence, endangering the welfare of a child, and abuse and neglect of a child, if certain conditions are met. It would also permit closed circuit testimony for crime victims in certain circumstances.
would authorize the state Victims of Crime Compensation Office to pay a maximum $2,500 for relocation expenses of witnesses of violent crimes and their families if they have been threatened as a result of witnessing the crime.
The last bill already passed the Assembly and heads to the governor's desk. The others head to the Assembly for consideration. All passed the Senate yesterday without dissent.
“The protection of victims’ rights is a priority that requires continuous attention and review," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a co-sponsor of all of the bills. “As we mark a milestone anniversary in our state’s work for crime victims, we are also committed to continuing to press forward to improve protections for survivors and their families. These bills take into account the challenges faced by crime victims, particularly those who have suffered from violent crimes, and their families. They build upon the work we have already done in New Jersey to assist survivors as they seek justice for the atrocities they suffered and attempt to rebuild their lives.”
She complimented Pompelio, who has provided free legal assistance to more than 15,000 victims through thethat he founded, for his qualities that have enabled him to accomplish so much, saying he is "patient, but not too patient, disciplined, focused and always bringing real stories before us."
Many who took part in the rally had personal stories to tell, including some who are seeking further changes in the victims’ rights laws.
John and Regina Thompson Jenkins wore T-shirts with pictures of their 19-year old son Tre' Devon Lane who was an innocent bystander when he was killed in September 2012 when someone shot at a group of people in Trenton. They are working for passage of two bills designed to protect witnesses. In unsolved cases like their son's, witnesses are often afraid to come forward for fear of their own lives and safety, particularly if gang members were the shooters.
They are backing two bills:, which has already passed the Assembly, would protect the names and personal identifying information of violent crime victims and witnesses from release under the state's Open Public Records Act; and , which would authorize protective orders for witnesses and victims of first and second degree crimes if someone used force or intimidation to try to stop them from reporting the crime to law enforcement.
"As families, we don't get closure," said Regina Jenkins. "These kids don't deserve this."