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Criminal Justice & Legal System

State law and courts disagree on who counts as a “victim”

Olivia Cowan
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio

Lawmakers in Lansing have been working on legislation in response to the Larry Nassar case. And while they’re at it, some say they might want to clarify who counts as a victim when it comes to giving impact statements at a defendant’s sentencing.

Nassar is the former MSU sports doctor who will spend decades in prison for serial sexual assault. At his sentencing, women who were sexually assaulted, their parents, and even coaches were allowed to give an impact statement. But under current Michigan law, some of them shouldn’t have been able to.

Andrea Bitely is a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office. She said the voices of parents needed to be heard in the Nassar case.

“They are in many ways just as much survivors and victims of crime as the people who were truly wronged and truly hurt by the crime itself,” she said.

As written, the Crime Victim’s Rights Act only lets certain people qualify as “victims.” So when it comes to giving victim impact statements at a defendant’s sentencing, certain people don’t count as victims. In some cases, family members or other loved ones aren’t allowed to give statements under the Act.

But the Court of Appeals has routinely given victim status to people who wouldn’t technically be allowed to talk under the act.

A recent article in the Michigan Bar Journal calls on the state Legislature to amend the Crime Victim’s Rights Act to include more family members.

Bitely says the attorney general’s office will leave it up to the Legislature to decide what to do about the discrepancy, but a clarification might be timely.

“People who love the victims of the crime are in many ways victims themselves,” she said. “If you would like a chance to speak you should be given a chance to speak."