Supporting the Victim Life Photo BillPosted: 3/30/2015
The Victim Life Photo Bill is an important piece of legislation currently pending before the Tennessee General Assembly. District Attorney General Charme Allen and HOPE for Victims founder Joan Berry were guest columnists in the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Sunday, March 29, 2015 edition. They submitted the following article advocating the passage of the Victim Life Photo Bill. Please read their column and help support the Victim Life Photo Bill by contacting your local legislators. For more information, click here.
Enforce the Victims’ Bill of Rights: Pass the Victim Life Photo Bill
By Joan Berry and District Attorney General Charme Allen
Joan Berry’s 21-year old daughter, Johnia Berry, was murdered in Knoxville in December 2004, during a botched burglary attempt. It was 2007 before the suspect was identified, arrested and charged with murder. In 2008, the defendant committed suicide in jail before the trial.
Joan Berry never had a chance to attend the murder trial of the defendant accused of murdering her daughter, but that has not stopped her from setting out to change the way our criminal court system conducts all murder trials.
Historically, it has been common practice for prosecutors to introduce a photograph depicting a reasonable likeness of the victim prior to their murder in addition to crime scene photographs. However, recent legal rulings have challenged this practice, and as a result, trial judges have begun to disallow the practice for fear of having verdicts overturned during the appeal process.
The result of this trend is murder trials in which the only “presence” allowed for the victim is the image of their body – or remaining portions of it – at the crime scene.
An image of the mortally damaged and broken form of a murder victim is not an acceptable substitution for that individual’s presence in the courtroom. It cannot effectively communicate that individual’s personhood to the judge and jury.
That is why Tennessee Voices for Victims, HOPE for Victims and Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen have joined together with other victim activists and members of the law enforcement community to support the Victim Life Photo Bill (House Bill 1324, Senate Bill 933) to seek a law guaranteeing that an appropriate photograph of a murder victim be admissible in Tennessee’s murder trials.
There is popular precedent for our request. In 1998, by a count of 680,000 to 85,000, residents of Tennessee overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that guaranteed victims the right to “be present at all proceedings where the defendant has the right to be present.”
Of course, due to the nature of the crime, a murder trial stands apart from all other trials in that the victim themselves cannot be present. The victim themselves cannot seek justice.
Some may contend that our goal is to inflame the sympathies of judges or juries. This is not the case. We want the Victims’ Bill of Rights to be upheld in our state’s courts by affording murder victims the same rights as victims of other crimes. We want murder victims to be granted the opportunity to be present in the courtroom, not as a corpse or piece of evidence, but as a person as shown in an appropriate photograph.
Progress is being made. Recent cases in other states, and select cases in Tennessee, have allowed appropriate likenesses of murder victims to be viewed by the judge and jury. This is a good start, but it is not enough. A right is not an exception to the rule; it is the rule. Those who are not able to speak for themselves should be the first, not the last, to be guaranteed their rights as people in Tennessee courts.
Those of us who have the ability, and the right, to make our voices heard must do so on behalf of those who have been silenced by violent crime in Tennessee.
Residents of Knox County can support this effort by sharing information found at Tennessee Voices for Victims’ website (tnvoicesforvictims.org), Facebook page (facebook.com/tnvoicesforvictims) and YouTube channel (youtube.com/tennesseevoices). Additional information is available through General Allen’s office.
Joan Berry helped found HOPE for Victims. Charme Allen is the District Attorney serving Knox County.