The power of the victim

Victim impact statements are allowed in Kentucky whenever an inmate is considered for parole. The victims, or others affected by the crime, can write letters and appear in person to speak with the parole board members making the decision about the proposed release. Most victims talk about the negative impacts of the crime on their lives and usually ask passionately that the prisoner not be released on parole. Occasionally, victims speak of forgiveness and ask for the release of the inmate.

On the other hand, people supporting the release of the inmate cannot speak directly to parole board members. Supporters can only send letters or sit silently at the hearings with prior permission. A former parole board member admitted to me that they don’t always read the letters of support, claiming they say the same thing, “My son Johnny is a nice boy.”

Not all states operate like Kentucky. In some states no impact statements for or against release are accepted in person — only letters and objective signs of rehabilitation are considered. In other states, victims can be heard at the first parole hearing — not later ones.

In Kentucky, staff members who know and supervise the inmates are not allowed to speak or write on their behalf, even though they are the ones who know best about their supposed rehabilitation. There is a fear that payoffs and deals between staff and inmate might muddy the process.

Victim impact statements seem to be here to stay.

In both Jerry Guenthner’s and Hal Cobb’s cases, there are vocal victims’ spokespeople arguing against their release. I talked with Pete McCartney, a retired homicide detective, about the practice of the police fighting against Guenthner’s release. Somewhat familiar with the case, he stated they definitely should have a right to show up, and he tried to explain the emotional connection police have with each other. Officers are always in it together, he explained, pulling up his sleeve to show me the bracelet he still wears in honor of a fallen brother. As he spoke, his words echoed the feeling of camaraderie that is shared by people in the law enforcement and military families.

I asked him if it was fair that the police group could influence a continued incarceration, whereas someone with a similar crime with no one showing up might be released.

“No, it’s not fair. The fair is in August,” he replied.

A changed system is needed for fairness, but realistically the power of victims is not going to change, he said. He pointed to increasing sympathies for victims as is seen in the proposed Marsy’s Law, which will change our state constitution if passed. This man insists police should have a right to object, but he agrees there should be an objective system to ensure that decision-making is even and wise, regardless of their objections and judgments about rehabilitation.

Col. Kevin Higdon, chief of the Shively Police Department, declined comment. Before he became chief, the Shively department was very active in opposing Guenthner’s release. In an email, he said, “I think it would be inappropriate for me to make comments on a case or the incarceration of individuals whom I never met. Comments on the rehabilitation process is something I have no knowledge of. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved with this case, or the families of either person, for me to make a comment.”

The director of the Parole Board’s Victim Advocacy Department did not respond to repeated requests for input.