When Elaine and Gordon Rondeau of Marietta learned their 29-year-old daughter, Renee, had been killed while walking home in her Chicago neighborhood, they found themselves battling not only their own grief, but a justice system they said gave them no help or resources to turn to.
“When Renee was murdered, we had no idea what to do, where to go, who to speak to,” Elaine Rondeau said. “For six months we challenged the system, we did everything we could, because the law says you do not get a victim advocate until the perpetrator is arrested.”
The couple staged rallies, placed posters on cars and telephone poles and called the mayor of Chicago seventeen times until the state attorney general finally agreed to help them.
The Rondeaus are now key activists for Marsy’s Law for Georgia, an advocacy group endeavoring to make a crime victims’ bill of rights part of the Georgia constitution. The group has begun hosting forums around the state, most recently in Marietta on Saturday, to raise awareness and support for a constitutional amendment protecting victims of crimes.
“Everyone is familiar with the Miranda rights: you have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent,” said Eric Harrison, political director of Marsy’s Law for Georgia. “We would like everyone to also know Marsy’s rights for crime victims and have that be equally as well-known.”
Georgia is one of 15 states with no constitutional guarantee for victim’s rights, according to the advocacy group. The goal of the amendment is to ensure crime victims and their families are included in the criminal justice process and are treated with fairness and respect throughout the proceedings.
The amendment would, among other things, guarantee victims the right to receive notification of major developments in their case, as well as notice of changes to their offender’s custodial status. While the current statutory victim’s bill of rights requires district attorney’s offices to provide crime victims with timely notification, Harrison said these rules are often not enforced. A constitutional amendment, he said, would provide stronger protections.
“The crime victim’s bill of rights in Georgia is a great statute that outlines all sorts of different rights that crime victims have,” Harrison said. “However, there is no enforcement mechanism in that statute. So while you do have the right to be heard and informed of what’s going on and the right to be treated with dignity and respect, sometimes folks fall through the cracks.”
Patrice Eberhart and her twin sister, Patrix Cody-Smith, both from Oxford, Georgia, said they were not notified when the man who shot and killed their brother was released after serving two months of a 20-year sentence.
“I found out by searching online,” Cody-Smith said.
The sisters said they still have no idea where their brother’s murderer is.
Cobb County has implemented an automated victim notification system called Victim Information & Notification Everyday, or VINE, but the degree to which such systems are used throughout Georgia varies widely by jurisdiction.
The amendment would also guarantee victims the right to be present at court proceedings and the right to provide input to the prosecutor before a plea agreement is finalized, another requirement Harrison said is not always enforced under current law.
“Marsy’s Law gives the victim a right to have a voice, the voice that I felt like I didn’t have,” said Sabrina McKenzie, director of the National Task Force Against Domestic Violence, who was herself a victim of domestic violence. “It gives women an opportunity to tell their side and to be heard equally.”
The resolution has already been adopted by the Georgia state Senate, passing by a 50-4 vote in March. It will be taken up by the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee at the start of the 2018 legislative session. If it passes by a two-thirds majority, it will then be decided on by voters.
“A victim who has suffered or been harmed due to an act committed or attempted to be committed in violation of the criminal or juvenile delinquency laws of this state shall be accorded the utmost dignity and respect by the justice system and all agencies and departments that serve such system,” the resolution reads.
The group’s next task is to bring 400 activists to the Georgia Capitol on Feb. 1 to make their requests known to legislators.
“A crime victim shouldn’t have to go through what we went through just to get attention,” Gordon Rondeau said.
For more information about the amendment, visit marsyslaw.us.