Victim Impact Statements at Sentencing for Utah Convictions

What is a Victim Impact Statement?

Under common law, for every crime committed there needed to be a victim.  That of course is no longer the case as there are a multitude of “victimless” crimes (e.g., possessing drugs, drinking alcohol under age, etc.)  For those crimes that legitimately have victims (e.g., murder, assault, theft, etc.) the victim has obviously been affected by the defendant’s actions.  The State wants to ensure that the victim has his say to let the court know how the crime has hurt him.

In order to protect the victim’s rights, the courts allow the victim to testify at the defendant’s sentencing.  (Sentencing is when the judge issues the penalty for the crime committed.)  This victim impact statement is typically very influential because it puts a face with the crime.  When victims show up at a sentencing, the sentence is generally a little more stringent.

What is the Rule for the Admissibility of Victim Impact Statements in Utah?

A little over 20 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991) that “evidence that addresses the defendant’s character or expresses the victim’s opinion of the appropriate sentence at the penalty phase of trial is inadmissible under the Eighth Amendment” of the United States Constitution.  To allow such evidence would be cruel and unusual punishment.

This year, however, the Utah Supreme Court in State v. Mateos-Martinez, 2013 UT 23 (2013) found that Payne‘s hard and fast rule only applies to capital murder cases, that is, cases which can result in the death penalty.

How Does this Apply Practically?

With the Utah Supreme Court’s holding in Mateos-Martinez that “there is no Eight Amendment bar to certain types of victim impact testimony in noncapital, adult sentencing proceedings before a judge” there appears to be absolute freedom for victims to testify to a judge regarding the victim’s opinion of what he believes to be an appropriate sentence for the defendant.  This is very negative for criminal defendants’ rights.  Victims often times have personal vendetta or have a history with the defendant that will cause the victim to want an inappropriate sentence to get back at the defendant.

Although victims should have the right to be heard, the courts should keep in check their statements and limit their testimony to avoid unfair and prejudicial evidence from being admitted.

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