Senate panel hears testimony on ‘Victims’ Voice Act’

Today the Senate Law and Justice Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 6099, a measure to help ensure that deceased crime victims have an advocate at sentencing hearings when there is no one else to speak for them. The bill, known as the Victims’ Voice Act, is sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and chair of the committee.

SB 6099 is in response to a controversial ruling by the Washington Supreme Court in April that a detective’s testimony on behalf of a murder victim, urging the court to reject a plea agreement and give her killer a harsher sentence, violated the defendant’s due-process rights.

“An 80-year-old woman was strangled,” Padden recounted. “She left no family or other representatives who could testify on her behalf. The investigator, Detective Scott Tompkins, was permitted to testify as a victim advocate, and without him, there would have been no one to speak for her.”

The woman, Arlene Roberts, was found dead in her King County home in 1978. The case went unsolved until 2010, when Tompkins reviewed the case files and matched fingerprints from the crime scene to Ronald Wayne MacDonald.

MacDonald agreed to a plea deal with a five-year suspended sentence for second-degree manslaughter, but the deal was rejected by the trial judge.

Tompkins explained to the committee today why he felt compelled to speak out for Arlene Roberts.

“She didn’t have any family – or anyone who knew her – and the judge would have had no idea of who she was as a person or how her life came to a brutal end,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to undermine any plea deals. I simply wanted to have the process be fair for the victim.”

The Washington state constitution and laws grant crime victims basic and fundamental rights. The victim has a right to attend the criminal trial and related court proceedings, and to make a statement at sentencing or any proceeding where the defendant’s release is considered. If the victim is deceased, incompetent, a minor or otherwise unavailable, the prosecuting attorney may identify a representative to appear to exercise the victim’s rights.

Under Padden’s bill, if a crime victim is deceased and has no estate or surviving family or any other representative, a prosecuting attorney may appoint an investigative law enforcement officer to serve as a representative of the victim during the sentencing hearing. The law enforcement officer would be permitted to make a sentencing recommendation that is different from that provided in a plea agreement.

“This bill is about seeking justice for the victims,” said Padden. “In the dissent in which [Supreme Court justices] Gonzalez and Stephens joined, Justice Yu reasoned, ‘With no family, friends, or estate to speak or request a victim representative, Detective Tompkins was the only person familiar with the horrific reality of the victim’s death. Without Detective Tompkins, the victim would have had no one to speak on her behalf . . . In the extremely narrow circumstance where the victim is deceased and has no estate or surviving family or any other representative, I would hold that it is permissible for an investigating officer to fill that role.’

“This bill codifies the justices’ dissent. It is narrow in scope and preserves the existing constitutional power of a prosecutor to appoint a victim representative.”