“I had no rights going through the criminal justice system.” — Virginia Lewis wants to balance the scales of justice
When Virginia Lewis was sexually abused by her father, the criminal justice system let her down. Now she’s working to make sure victims of crimes receive at least the same rights as their attackers.
Kelly Vierling, a Stillwater native, says she never had any doubts or concerns about the criminal justice system before tragedy struck her family. “You always just assume the system works until you are thrown into it,” she says.
When her 21-year-old son was shot killed by a woman at a party, she was devastated. Unfortunately, she soon learned the justice system – despite having an aggressive legal and support system in place for accused criminals – largely leaves victims and their families to fend for themselves.
“They didn’t tell us anything,” says Kelly. “When they arrested the woman who shot my son, they didn’t tell me. In fact, I didn’t even speak to the district attorney’s office until she was out on bail.”
When charges were filed and a trial began, the process only got more frustrating for Kelly and her family. The Vierlings were instructed not to show emotion in the court room and not to wear pins with Alex’s face on it. “We were told to sit there silently or be removed. You are forced to be invisible,” says Kelly.
A motion was filed to successfully block the use of any images of Alex while he was alive and healthy. Meanwhile, the defendant and her attorney attacked his character and made statements that Kelly says were blatantly untrue.
Kelly says that throughout the process, her family felt like they had no voice and no representation. “It feels like you are standing in a clear soundproof box screaming at the top of your lungs, but no one can see you or hear you.”
After a mistrial, Alex’s killer was eventually convicted of manslaughter in a second trial. While the Vierlings were invited to speak at the sentencing hearing, she says the process was clearly for show only. “The jury is long gone, the decision has been made and the sentence has been set. Allowing us to speak was just a way of appeasing us.”
Adding insult to injury in this entire process: Alex’s convicted killer had her sentence cut in half and served only 4 months in Payne County Jail.
Understandably, Kelly is angry and frustrated. While her son’s killer enjoyed and benefitted from a long list of Constitutional rights designed to guarantee a fair trial and fair sentencing, the Vierlings have alternated between being ignored and actively silenced.
Kelly wants people to understand that it’s the system, not the people involved with her case, who are at fault. She says Assistant District Attorney Kevin Etherington and her victims’ advocates worked hard to involve her in the process and cared about her and her family. “The system we have in place today gives defense attorneys and their clients the power to re-victimize the victims through the trial proceedings,” she says. “Kevin never let us down. The law itself is what is stripping victims of their rights and dignity.”
For Kelly, Marsy’s Law and the reforms proposed in State Question 794 are a way of fixing a process that is clearly broken. If 794 passes, families like the Vierlings will be required to be notified at each important stage of the criminal justice process: arrest, bonding, trial, and sentencing. If the DA seeks a plea deal, the Vierlings would be consulted. Their right to remain in the courtroom would never be in jeopardy.
These seem like simple, almost obvious, fixes. But for people like Kelly, they are the difference between experiencing justice and being victimized a second time by a system that ignores and mistreats people impacted by violent crimes.
“At the time when our family needed and deserved dignity and respect, we were met with resistance and ignored,” said Kelly. “Our son was treated more like a piece of evidence and less like a real person. I believe Marsy’s Law will change this.”
“There needs to be a purpose behind Alex’s death. If this is it, so be it,” she says.
A postscript from Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma: Kelly’s story has not been ignored in Payne County. One of Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma’s strongest supporters is Payne and Logan County District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas. We are also pleased to have the endorsement of Payne County Clerk Glenna Craig. The effort to improve our criminal justice system and strengthen the rights of victims is a cooperative one, and there are many individuals within the justice system who are eagerly offering their support!