Victims' Rights Advocates Urge Caution in Wake of Tragedy

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They had spent all week lobbying legislators, assessing proposals, pushing their familiar refrains. Again and again, they bared their personal tragedies to boost their public agenda: a new crackdown on criminals, a new compassion for victims.

They felt good about their work during National Crime Victims Week. They thought they were making progress.

Then they came home Sunday and learned the wrenching news. Anthony Michael Martinez, the 10-year-old Beaumont boy abducted from an alley outside his home, had been found dead in a desolate ravine.

The victims' rights advocates knew instantly what that would mean. More fuel for their fight, yes. But also an atmosphere charged with such raw emotion that passion could outstrip rational lawmaking.

"We have to be careful that when we do go forward with these projects they make sense," said victims' rights advocate Mike Reynolds, who wrote the three-strikes law. "Let's ask ourselves if they're going to work, or is this one more law to make us feel good?"

Recent history proves that tragedies such as Martinez's tend to sharpen our focus so that--at least in the first scary, outraged flush--no punishment seems too harsh.

The abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Northern California provoked the three-strikes law. The abduction and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey led dozens of states to enact versions of the so-called Megan's Law allowing police to notify the community of the presence of registered sex offenders.

And the abduction and murder of Anthony Martinez comes just as state and federal lawmakers are considering new legislation to further toughen penalties against young criminals and sex offenders.

In Sacramento, Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia) is backing a bill that would require convicted sex offenders to wear electronic monitoring bracelets once they are released from prison. State Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) has offered a bill that would require sex offenders to check in with state authorities by telephone every day.

And Gov. Pete Wilson has proposed a packet of 20 criminal justice reform laws. His bills would let prosecutors try murder suspects as young as 14 as adults and would threaten the death penalty for gang members who murder for the benefit of fellow gangsters.

With all the indignation crackling around the tragedy in Beaumont, analysts said such bills might have a better chance of passing than they would in a more muted climate.

"If we can channel peoples' frustration into making tougher crime laws, and tougher sex offender laws . . . then possibly there's a ray of hope coming out of this tragedy," said Sean Walsh, the governor's spokesman.

Or, as Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School, put it: "The kind of laws that gave people pause [before this case], that made people stop and say, 'This is too drastic'--well, after this, people won't pause any more."

Maybe they should.

Some of the laws passed as quick fixes in response to other tragedies have turned out to be seriously flawed, or even impotent.

The state Supreme Court toned down the three-strikes law, ruling that judges need more discretion in sentencing repeat offenders. And authorities have called Megan's Law almost unworkable because many sex offenders fail to update their registrations as they move about the country and police have no way of tracking them all. "Unfortunately in these kind of cases people often take the Rush Limbaugh, one-liner view of things," said criminal defense attorney Ronald D. Miller, whose law firm handles many sex-crime cases.

Even veteran victims' rights advocates warn that it's far too early to consider using the Martinez case as a model for any legislation. The perpetrator has not been caught or even identified, and no one knows whether he's a repeat sex offender, an escaped felon, or someone with no criminal history at all.

Given these uncertainties, Jackie Ravel Knezevich, a leader of the group Justice for Homicide Victims Inc., urged lawmakers not to go overboard in proposing fierce new crackdowns.

"We have so many things in place already. . . . What do you pass now?" Ravel Knezevich asked. "This may just reinforce some of the harder-line legislation that's already passed."

No matter what happens in the legislative arena, analysts said, heart-tugging tragedies like the Martinez case tend to percolate through society and affect all aspects of the criminal justice system.

Jurors hearing cases that have nothing to do with Martinez's abduction could remember his smiling face--and then take their wrath out on all defendants. Judges, too, might reflexively order harsher sentences for felons coming before them. "It has a psychological impact across the board," Levenson said.

To Marcella Leach, a member of Justice for Homicide Victims, the psychological impact of such crimes is crucial because it forces citizens--and lawmakers--to start thinking of the victims as well as the criminals.

The victims' rights movement gained momentum only when people started to realize that crime didn't only happen to bad people in bad neighborhoods, she said. It takes cases such as the abduction of Polly Klaas from her bedroom--and now, sadly, the snatching of Martinez from outside his home--to propel the kind of legislation that victims' rights advocates hold dear, such as bills granting survivors the right to testify in court.

"People are suddenly realizing this can happen to them," said Leach, whose daughter was murdered in 1993. "They don't have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they don't have to be unlucky. This can happen to anyone."

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