Victim’s Rights from a Victim’s Perspective-Lisa Spicknall-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety; I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, I think a very moving program we have for you today “Victim’s Rights from a Victim’s Perspective.” We have Lisa Spicknall. She is a program manager for the “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”, She’s been a victim’s advocate for 14 years. She tells an incredible story of perseverance under unbelievable circumstances. What I want to do is read a piece from ABC News, because she has been covered by People magazine, ABC News, lots of national publications. These publications at the same time call Lisa a hero. But I want to give you a sense as to what it is that Lisa’s been through, so I’ll read very quickly from a piece from ABC News.  “When Lisa Spicknall was thrown down the stairs by her husband Richard with her toddler in her arms, she decided to pick herself up and walk out on her marriage. After eight years in a troubled relationship, she left the marriage for the sake of her two children, three year old Destiny and two year old Richie. ‘That night he could have killed my son.’ Said Lisa. ‘That’s when I made the decision that enough was enough.’ Nine months later, in September 1999, her estranged husband murdered both of her children. ‘He wanted the ultimate hurt and he found it.’ she said. The murder of her two children was not only a crime committed by a man who was trying to get back into a soon ex-wife in a wife’s life in a horrific and unimaginable way, it was a crime that could have been prevented by laws that stop accused abusers under protective orders from buying handguns and it was a gun crime that shed light on a state-wide problem that could have had, and can have fatal consequences.” Lisa, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Lisa Spicknall: Thank you very much, Len.

Len Sipes: Lisa, you know, it is just unimaginable, the fact that your former husband killed your two children, strapped in the back of a vehicle. He had custody rights and he took the children, supposedly, on a vacation, murdered your two children. That’s something you have had to live with your entire life. I’m not quite sure I really want to dwell on that particular issue, so much as everything that you’ve done past that, but I wanted to acknowledge for the audience the tragedy that you went through.

Lisa Spicknall: Thank you very much.

Len Sipes: And I think that it’s been an unbelievable journey for you and an unbelievable journey for the rest of us involved in the criminal justice system, because ladies and gentlemen, I do get the sense that we within the criminal justice system still, at this point, do not treat victims of crime with the compassion that we need to employ and we, I think many times, we, within the criminal justice system, do not acknowledge the legitimate rights of victims. Correct Lisa?

Lisa Spicknall: That’s correct. Although it has gotten better over the past 35 years, I think there’s still a long way to go and I still think that victims are treated a lot differently than we should be, when it comes to the criminal justice system.

Len Sipes: We do several shows a year with the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Will Marling comes on to this air and talks about things from a national perspective and talks about the possibility of a federal Constitutional Amendment protecting victims, but I wanted to do a show from a victim’s perspective, because again, every day, every year, there are millions of violent crimes in this country, millions of property crimes in this country, and there’s millions of people who are stuck with dealing with those of us in the criminal justice system. They’re thrust in it. They didn’t ask to be here, they don’t want to be here, and they’re going through this unbelievably traumatic moment and then they’ve got this huge, and sometimes uncaring, bureaucracy, confusing bureaucracy – they have to deal with us. So that’s one of the hardest things in the world that I can possibly imagine a person has to go through, during an unbelievably difficult time in their lives.

Lisa Spicknall: It really is, especially when you’re thrust into this criminal justice system that you, most of the time, know nothing about. Most victims of crime have never dealt with or been touched by the criminal justice system at all except maybe, you know, a minor traffic ticket or something along those lines. But when you’re dealing with innocent victims of crime, they’ve never dealt with any of this. They’ve never worked with a prosecutor, they’ve never had to sit before a defense attorney or talk to a victim advocate about what their rights are, or what their rights aren’t. You know, a lot of times we start out in this process as victims and we think, “Well, it’s us against them.” And it’s really not. You learn very quickly that it’s the State against the offender in your crime. It’s them who are going to make all the decisions and all the choices. You know, you have the right to be notified and the right to be present and the right to be informed, but you learn very quickly that you don’t have the right of say so. You generally don’t have the choice of, “Yes, I want this prosecutor to do this, this way.” Or, you know, “I want them to file for the death penalty as opposed to not filing for the death penalty.” “My loved one was killed, why wouldn’t they file for the death penalty?” So you learn very quickly that you don’t have a lot of say in what happens and it’s very confusing, it’s very – it’s not at all like what we see on television and I think that’s hard for a lot of people to accept and to come to terms with.

Len Sipes: Those of us in the system, we have to deal, whether you’re in the law enforcement side or the corrections side, we have to deal with thousands upon thousands of events. Which means thousands upon thousands of victims. Which means that you’ve got to be almost machine like in terms of your ability to process either as a police officer, to process a crime scene as a prosecutor, to bring the case to the court. There’s only so much emotion, there’s only so much sympathy, if that’s the right word, there’s only so much empathy that you can bring to the table, because beyond the Lisa Spicknall’s of the world, there are 100 others right behind her. Do we, can we do a better job of humanizing the system to victims of crime?

Lisa Spicknall: I think the most important thing that I talk to – I do a lot of prosecutor training, a lot of police officer training, and I think one of the most important things that I tell them is, treat these families how you would expect and want your family to be treated. You know, there’s always going to be that separation, there’s always going to be that case that touches you and rips your heart out and sets it on the table and makes you more humanized to what’s going on and but there’s always going to be those cases where you push aside and you know, breaking and entering of an 80 year old woman, who, “It’s no big deal. Nobody got hurt, everything’s okay.” But for that person, their life is completely changed. And I think if people start to realize that as much as the, you know, violent homicides and the, you know, different types of crimes that really effect and touch people, you’re going to start to see a lot more compassion coming from prosecutors, coming from police officers, coming from the different justice professionals to say, “Wait a minute, if I treat these people how I would want my 80 year old grandmothers to be treated, it’s going to give not only the victim, but it’s also going to give the officer or the prosecutor a different outlook on the way things should be.

Len Sipes: Well, I’ve been told that if we did that, we’d become much more effective in terms of gaining the trust of the victim and we would become much more effective in gaining the trust of the family. We would get more information, better information in terms of prosecuting the individual. But again, it is, it goes back to a variety of things. Number one, there’s a lot of people who make very basic, fundamental, life decisions – not on the violent crime, it is a property crime. If their house has been burglarized two or three times, the move. A lot of individuals will simply say, “That’s it, I don’t want to live here.” Cities, counties, urban areas are tremendously hurt by property crimes. The car is stolen – I know of an individual that came to the city of Baltimore and he came there as a television executive. Wanted to live in the city of Baltimore, had his garage – not his house – his garage broken into three times and the bikes of he and his wife and his children were stolen three times. He moved. Now he had an entirely different view of the city, he had an entirely different commitment to the city of Baltimore based upon a non-violent crime that didn’t even involve his house. So if people feel that strongly about these sort of crimes, could you imagine what it would be somebody who has to deal with the fact that their loved one has been murdered or their loved one has been raped or their loved one has been robbed. Doesn’t that change their lives dramatically?

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely it does. You know, any time you’re touched by crime, it changes your life, no matter what the extent of. You know, and a lot of times people don’t realize that crime touches not only just the individual affected but it touches the entire community. So you’re looking at a community problem where eventually communities are going to, for [INDISCERNIBLE 00:09:44] and things like that, they’re going to pick up and start moving. They’re going to change what they do on a daily basis and they have to. But I think a lot of that comes from treatment, it comes from the way that they’re looked at, the way that they’re judged. You know, you have victims out there who are looked at, “Well, if you didn’t do X, Y and Z then this wouldn’t have happened.” Well, that’s not necessarily true. We can’t look at victimization as the victim’s fault, we have to look at it as, “What can we as a society do to help prevent this type of victimization from happening?”

Len Sipes: But a lot of people do that, do they not? A lot of people say, “If she had not done this, if they had better secured their garage, if they had done this, if they had done that, they wouldn’t have been victimized.” I think people have this sense of they cannot allow the understanding that it wasn’t somehow, some way, the victim’s doing something, not doing something, because if they go to this sense that regardless of what the victim did or did not do, that crime probably was going to happen, that makes them feel that much more vulnerable, does it not?

Lisa Spicknall: It does. And it also takes away from that “it can’t happen to me” syndrome. You know, you have people who immediately, “Oh, that could never happen to me. Just can’t happen to me, because I do X, Y, and Z.” Well, you know, it can happen to you and it can happen to anybody. I currently work for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving and one of my biggest fears is innocently driving down the road and being hit by a drunk driver. You know, we hear about it all the time. And we see it and it can happen very well. I’m one of the biggest, “It can’t happen to me. I know what to look for, I know to see if somebody’s swerving.” But you know, I have to step back from that and say, “It could very well happen to me.” You know? It happens every day. It happens – there will be, in the State of Maryland this year, about 25,000 arrests just for drunk driving. And that’s the arrests that were caught. That doesn’t include the drunk drivers that get away. So all of those people on the road, driving, you know – we all need to step back and say, “This can happen to me.” And what – we need to stand up as a society and say, “You know what, we’re tired of this happening. So what can we do?”

Len Sipes: So the lessons just aren’t for the criminal justice system. The sense that I’m getting is the lessons are for the larger society. Stop blaming victims, do acknowledge that it can happen to you, take the steps to make sure, to the best of your ability, that it can happen to you and if you’re in the criminal justice system, for the love of heavens, as you’ve just said, treat me, treat that victim as if you’re, as if you would want your mother treated, as if you want your wife or husband to be treated, as you want to be treated. Treat the person with all the respect you possibly can.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely. And I think sometimes the best people who are in the criminal justice system have been those who have been victimized somehow. You know, I have prosecutors who have come to me and said, you know, “My sister was killed x amount of years ago and this just really focused me to be the person that I am today.” And you can see a difference in treatment of victims by those people. You know, I have police officers who have lost friends, who – different circumstances and different situations have happened that have given them that drive that they absolutely treat people differently. I’ve also heard prosecutors say to victims, in a drunk driving case in particular, “It doesn’t matter if they hit a mailbox or if they hit a person, you’re no different.”

Len Sipes: Well, and the bottom line is that again, this is the real, I think, heart of the problem, as far as the criminal justice system is concerned. We, as individuals, we as human beings, can only process so much. How many people can we assist in terms of victims of crime, to the point where… The sympathy I think that those of us in the criminal justice system – the sympathy for victims is there. But there’s only so many horror stories you can process as a human being and when you have case upon case upon case, you‘ve got to proceed as quickly as you possibly can and quite frankly, I get the sense, from those of us in the system, that sometimes victims just get in the way. Victims can be demanding in terms of time, in terms of explanation, and sometimes you feel, rightly or wrongly, and in this case I’ll say wrongly, that you lack the time. Not the empathy, but you lack the time and you lack the emotional ability – victim after victim after victim – to give that sort of treatment to that victim as if you would your grandmother, as if you would your husband, as if you would your own son. Sometimes we lack the ability to do that.

Lisa Spicknall: And that’s when I would suggest leaning on your victim advocates. Most agencies, most departments, most prosecutors have victim advocates and if they don’t, there’s organizations out there that do have victim advocates that will work with victims. That’s what our jobs are. You know?

Len Sipes: And that becomes very important, because you did, for many years, work as a victim’s advocate for a law enforcement agency.

Lisa Spicknall: Correct, and I still work as a victim advocate, for a non-profit agency now. So I still do the victimization work and I still work with the victims. You know, like I said, in some of my training it’s one of the biggest things I tell. “We’re here for you. We’re here as victim advocates to help you. If you have a case that you need that extra, you know, needs that extra push or needs that extra hand holding or shoulder to cry on, give us a call, because that’s what we do. That’s what our focus is and we have that time to dedicate to those victims that you may not have.”

Len Sipes: We’re more than halfway through the program. I want to reintroduce Lisa Spicknall. She is a program manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, The show today is “Victim’s Rights from a Victim’s Perspective.” Lisa, let me ask you this, is that considering everything that you’ve been through, both personally and professionally, does it ever exhaust you?

Lisa Spicknall: It does. And there comes times where you need to step back for a little bit and take a break and take a breath and find something to reenergize yourself. I have heard some fantastic speakers, I have come away with reaching points where it’s like, “Okay, I can’t do this anymore.” And then I’ll think about my children. I’ll think about Destiny and Richie and say, “You know what? This is why I do what I do.” It reenergizes me. It really – my goal and what my goal has been for the past 14 years, is to make sure that there’s never another Destiny and Richie. And although I can’t prevent what happened to me from happening again, I can at least speak out and I can say, “This is what happens, this is how you don’t treat somebody, this is how they should be treated. And let’s see how we can work together to fix the issue that’s going on.”

Len Sipes: But the system is sloppy, is it not? The criminal justice system, I mean, I don’t watch any crime shows on television because I can’t. You know, you have young people who are in the prime of their lives with equipment that Apple would be jealous of – Google would be jealous of. They’re surrounded by state of the art equipment, they’ve got all the time in the world, they’re running all of these tests, and that’s not the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is this huge entity that plods along under its own steam and sometimes we, you know, we just don’t have the precision that people expect from us. I constantly laugh at crime scene investigations because there are very few crime scene investigations, if any, that go down the way that it’s portrayed on television. So do we have, does society have an unrealistic expectation of those of us in the criminal justice system in terms of what it is we can do, could do, should do?

Lisa Spicknall: I think we do. I think, you know, and I’m with you – I don’t watch the crime scene shows. I try to steer far away from that. It’s just something that I’ve chosen a long time ago not to do. But I think we do. I think seeing the CSIs and the different shows like that, it really gives people, “Well, this can be solved in a one hour program.” Well, it doesn’t work that way in real life, and you know, I tell victims all the time – they want to make sure all there i’s are dotted, all their t’s are crossed before they can give you any answers. Sometimes that arrest doesn’t happen in the first five minutes or the first, you know, 24 hours. Sometimes it’s days, it’s weeks, it’s months at a time – if not…I’ve seen cases go on for years without arrest.

Len Sipes: Yes.

Lisa Spicknall: And trying to explain to the victims, take everything that you know, everything that you think you know, and throw it out. And let’s start fresh. Let’s start with reality and what reality is. I think TV does us a very large disservice in how the criminal justice system actually is and it gives people a very unrealistic expectation of what goes on and what can happen.

Len Sipes: Agreed, agreed, agreed. Now, what do you do with victims – and I’ve been dealing with victims throughout my career. And when I was a law enforcement officer I had a direct contact with the victims of crime. And from time to time I would go back and check on them. And again, these are not necessarily violent crimes. It could be an elderly couple with a burglary. It could be an individual whose child has left and we don’t know if the child left – an older child – we don’t know if the child left voluntarily or if the child was kidnapped. I mean, there are so many uncertainties. I would check back with them and in many cases, I would find them mired in one place, that they could not get beyond what happened to them. Again, making the decision to move or making the decision to leave an area or with a violent crime, not being able to get beyond it. What do you say to people under those set of circumstances?

Lisa Spicknall: Something that I’ve learned over the past many years that I’ve done this is, a victim’s going to be as healed as they can possibly be by five years. Once they’ve reached that five year point, there’s no further, no back –that’s how they’re going to be. And I see that a lot. You know, I think you going back six months, a year later, two years later, just to check on them, they’re always going to remember that, and they’re never going to forget that, and I think that’s absolutely fantastic that you were able and did that, because they’re going to remember that, and that’s going to help them make some decisions and make some hard decisions in life. You know, you’re still out there looking for that runaway child or that kidnapped child – somebody’s still thinking about them and somebody’s still keeping that case there. But I think for people to realize that it usually takes anywhere between five and seven years for people to get to a state of normalcy or what their new normalcy is going to be. You know, I’ll be completely honest, there’s some days still that I – knowing that it will never happen, but still have that thought in the back of the head, you know, “Are Destiny and Richie going to walk through that door today? Am I going to see them again?” Knowing that it’s never going to happen, but you still have those songs, those senses, those different little reminders that pop up.

Len Sipes: This is something that’s a life-long event.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: And I think those of us in the criminal justice system need to understand that. For us it is the time that we involve ourselves with the victims on a professional level. For the victims, it is a life-long event and that life-long event applies to lesser crimes as well. So I did not want to demean that person who went through those burglaries and who decided, you know, to spend $1,000 on a security system, or to leave that community. That’s an event that will be with them for the rest of their lives and shape who they are.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely. And that’s going to change things that they do. I think about now, when I walk out into a parking lot, you know, I have two young boys and I make sure that they are with me, especially – more so at the holidays. I mean, they’re always with me, but more so when times are a little tougher, when you know things are happening and there’s been a rash of burglaries in the area or you know, pocketbook snatching, things like that, I always make sure I have my keys in my hand when I walk to my car. I just did it when I left the courthouse this morning. Had my keys in my hand, I have an auto start on my car, I make sure my car is running. When I get in, I lock the doors. Nothing’s happened to me, but I think that the job that I do and the crimes that I’ve seen have kind of shaped me more into that person.

Len Sipes: Sure.

Lisa Spicknall: Just because you know what can happen, you know? One of the questions that we ask a lot of our police officers, “Does your job make you do things differently than before you were a police officer?” Absolutely it does.

Len Sipes: My daughters would complain bitterly that they have an ex-cop/criminologist/spokesperson for the criminal justice system as a father, because I had something that I called the parking lot drill. We do not dilly dally in parking lots, we get in the car, we do not examine what it is we bought, we do not discuss the day, we get in the car, we lock the doors, we keep our eyes open and we leave nice and peacefully.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: So they would say to me, you know, “Boy, you’ve done made us paranoid.” And I said, “Well, that’s, sorry, you were brought up by somebody who’s been in the criminal justice system for 40 years and I don’t want to see you guys victimized in the same way that I’ve seen so many other people victimized.” So this is something that is part of everybody, every victim’s day to day process. It could have happened 15 years ago and yet it’s still going to be part of who they are.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely. It changes who you are, it changes who you become, and it changes what you do and what your decisions are each and every day.

Len Sipes: Last five minutes of the program. So for those of us in the criminal justice system, and we talk to lots of aides to mayors, county executives, state executives. We talk to aides up at Congress. We simply need to be, to humanize the process and to be as service oriented as we possibly can.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely, absolutely.

Len Sipes: What else?

Lisa Spicknall: I think we need –

Len Sipes: What else do we need to know?

Lisa Spicknall: I think we need to put victims first. You know, a lot of – I attended a hearing today, it was a post conviction hearing and everything that happened in the courtroom today was the offender’s needs, the offender’s wants, the offender’s – the offender, the offender. And I sat with a family of about 20 victims and had to explain to them that unfortunately, at this time, this is the way the criminal justice system is. I think we need to start looking at victims and start realizing what their needs are and how a postponement affects them physically, emotionally, every ounce of their being. They’ve built themselves up so much to do and take the next steps, that when the next steps fall through, they just – it really takes them back to day one. So I think putting victims first, I think humanizing the crime and I think treating people, essentially, as you would want to be treated in this situation is very helpful.

Len Sipes: For virtually all major criminal justice organizations including ours here at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency we have victims’ advocates that work with individuals from the larger community. So part of it is relying upon the victims’ advocates that you have within your own organization and everybody listening to this needs to understand that there are victims’ advocates in every major criminal justice organization. But the victims’ advocates are going to be dealing with that individual, oh, I don’t know, afterwards. The key interaction that they’re going to have, that victims are going to have, are going to be with the cops, are going to be with the prosecutors, are going to be with the parole and probation agents and we just need to up our game when it comes to victims.

Lisa Spicknall: Right. I agree.

Len Sipes: Laws, legislation – I know that Will Marling of the National Organization of Victim assistance is trying to get a constitutional, national constitutional amendment to protect victims of crimes. Is there something else the system can do formally?

Lisa Spicknall: I think getting the national constitutional amendment would be a step in the right direction. I think it would give us and afford us protections federally, as opposed to just state by state. So I think that’s the best start and that’s where a lot of energy needs to be focused.

Len Sipes: So much of my early training in both law and constitutional law and law enforcement was that victims were to be treated with respect, but kept at arm’s length.

Lisa Spicknall: Right.

Len Sipes: That was the original, that was my original training, it really was. That victims are there to be kept in a bucket, off to the side and don’t be nasty to them and try to list all the information you possibly can, but you know, son of a gun, sometimes they get in the way. And so my sense is, and my guess would be that your sense is is that it still permeates the criminal justice system today.

Lisa Spicknall: Absolutely. And I think until we can really get in there and get to the root of that and have everyone realize that that doesn’t work anymore, then it’s not going to change.

Len Sipes: Do people look at your, do you tell people about your background when you’re dealing with victims?

Lisa Spicknall: Not a lot of times. Quite often people put the name together. It might take them a little while, but they’ll put the name together and realize that they’ve heard it somewhere. When I work with victims, I am specific to their needs, their case and what’s going on in their life. I think my situation and where I’ve come from makes me a better advocate, it makes me more understandable for what happens and gives them a whole new insight into the criminal justice system and what can happen, just because I’ve walked the path.

Len Sipes: But when you talk to people like me and when people like me bring it back up again, then, you know, when I turn the record button off and hang up the Skype connection, then you’ve got to sit back and do what? You’ve got to process the fact that you had to, for the one millionth time, deal with what happened to you.

Lisa Spicknall: I do, but you know, what, everybody who hears this program, and everybody who hears our conversation is going to walk away knowing Destiny and Richie, and that’s why I do what I do.

Len Sipes: And that’s the important thing, because their tragic deaths have brought a lot of relief to literally thousands of victims through the effort on the national, state level, through all the publicity. When I was doing the Google searches for your name and your circumstances, it’s really amazing to me as to how, you know, ABC News, Parade magazine, lots of other publications, people have gone so far as to call you a hero. Do you believe that you’re a hero?

Lisa Spicknall: Um, I think I’m a mom that wants to do, still do good by her kids.

Len Sipes: And I think that’s the best possible answer. Lisa Spicknall, ladies and gentlemen, we’re discussing today victim’s rights from a victim’s perspective. Lisa is program manager, a program manager for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]