It’s In Your Court: The silent collateral victims

It happened again this week. The family of an accused criminal defendant in a serious crime with sensational overtones is descended upon at their residence by Twin Cities TV reporters, asking them for comment. Apparently, ratings concerns supersede simple understanding of their grief and their right to privacy.

The rights of crime victims are well-protected under Minnesota law. Victims are entitled to notice of any motions to reduce bail or modify conditions of release, are entitled to restitution and may make a victim impact statement at sentencing hearings. Direct victims are, for example, those who have been assaulted or robbed, or those family members harmed by the death of a loved one. There are, however, other victims of crimes who suffer the collateral damage of crimes: the family and friends of the offender (defendant).

Frequently at the first appearance of a defendant in court on a serious felony offense we see the offender’s spouse or significant other or members of the offender’s family sitting in court, waiting to see the amount of bail and conditions of release that will be ordered. We may see these folks at every hearing until the case is resolved either by a plea of guilty or a jury trial. Many of these folks are the long-suffering silent collateral victims of crimes committed by their loved one. Innocent children by the thousands have parents in Minnesota jails and prisons.

For repeat offenders, we may have frequently seen these folks in court before. Often they are parents that have stood by and supported their child, who is no longer a child, through several stretches of jail or prison and several chemical dependency treatment programs, often unsuccessful. They may have sacrificed most of their life savings on bail, fines and defense attorney’s fees.

There have been several highly-publicized murders in Minnesota in the past few years which have been a tragedy for the direct victims, their friends and families, as well as the family and friends of the perpetrator. During a plea hearing or sentencing I have watched as spouses, mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents and friends of the offender weep openly as the facts of the crime are recounted or the depth of the direct victims’ loss is expressed. It is very sad.

In his book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, children and the Search for Identity,” author Andrew Solomon explores how our society views parents with criminal children and writes:

Criminality is the child’s fault, something he has done deliberately and with choice. It is also the parent’s fault, something they could have prevented with decent moral education and adequate vigilance. These, at least, are the popular conceptions, and so parents of criminals live in a territory of anger and guilt, struggling to forgive both their children and themselves … A child who is morally culpable seems like an indictment of mother and father. Parents whose kids do well take credit for it, and the obverse of their self-congratulation is that parents whose kids do badly must have erred.

One wonders if anything would have changed if someone had exercised “tough love” and simply withdrawn their financial and emotional support, allowing the repeat offender to “hit rock bottom.” That is certainly easier said than done, particularly for family members. Some parents have exercised tough love to no avail. They once changed this offender’s diapers as a child, stayed up with them when sick, taught them to ride a bike or cast a fishing lure and drove them to soccer practice.  They may have watched in anguish their child’s downward slide, perhaps starting in middle school or high school, with the influence of “using” friends, and maybe even “graduating” from marijuana to meth and even heroin.

When we hear in the media about another tragic crime, we should keep in our thoughts the family and friends of the direct victims as well as the collateral victims. All are affected by such tragedies. We should not rush to judgment that the offender’s parents should also be vilified.

Submitted by Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, chambered in Buffalo. Halsey is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org. Go to Community and click “The District Court Show.” Halsey may also be heard on “Legal Happenings” on KRWC 1360 AM (Buffalo) on Saturdays at 12:30 p.m.

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