Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard is reconsidering his office’s opposition to allowing families of murder victims to tell their stories to juries and judges who decide the fate of defendants.
When the state moved last year to require that juries decide the punishment in most death penalty cases, victims rights advocates said the state also should permit survivors to testify during sentencing hearings.
Victims already have the right under the Arizona Constitution to speak at sentencing in every other type of criminal case. But state lawmakers haven’t extended that right to death penalty cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the outcome could be unfairly tilted against a defendant if a victim’s survivors offer suggestions about the appropriate punishment.
Lobbyists for then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano and Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said last year prosecutors couldn’t control what a victims’ survivors might say if they testify, so the only safe course was to continue to exclude them.
Both state and county prosecutors repeated their opposition Friday at a House committee hearing when the proposal to include victims in death penalty cases was offered as a last-minute substitution to another bill.
While speaking during a ceremony Monday in honor of National Crime Victims Week, however, Goddard said he’s re-examining the policy established by Napolitano.
"I’m very concerned that it appears to be contrary to victims rights as I know them," said Goddard, who took office Jan. 6.
Goddard said the state should be able to strike a balance between the defendant’s rights as outlined by the federal courts and the rights of victims as guaranteed in the state constitution. But Goddard admitted he would be overruling his most experienced prosecutors if he chooses to back the House bill.
"There’s a divided opinion about that," Goddard said. "My mind is still open on it. (But) many appellate advocates feel very strongly that’s an opening which the Supreme Court has prohibited us from crossing."
The issue is critical to the family of Kristen Salem, the 2-year-old girl burned to death by her father, Shawn Grell, in the desert east of Mesa in December 1999. Grell was sent to death row, but the state Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing last week to consider if his borderline mental retardation should eliminate the death sentence as an option.
Kristen’s mother, Amber, and grandmother Lee Petruso came to Monday’s ceremony with plenty of questions. In part, they were confused about why Grell was permitted to speak at his first sentencing, while they couldn’t respond.
"They keep us quiet all through the (judicial) process, and we can’t say or speak or even look at the criminal," Petruso said. "I just don’t understand."