SPRINGFIELD -- Until last week, the opportunity for Illinois voters to approve a victims’ rights amendment to the Illinois Constitution in November seemed all but certain.

SPRINGFIELD -- Until last week, the opportunity for Illinois voters to approve a victims’ rights amendment to the Illinois Constitution in November seemed all but certain.


The constitutional amendment would have changed the role of victims in the legal process. But uncertainty over how that role would affect a prosecutor’s ability to go after criminals helped sink the bill just days before Sunday’s deadline to put it on the ballot.


Victims’ rights are often a bipartisan rallying cry at the Statehouse. When the amendment first passed the House in February, only two Democrats voted against it. Changes were made in the Senate, but 55 senators out of 60 still signed on as co-sponsors.


The amendment, HJRCA29, seemed on track to clear the House again until Wednesday, when it met a buzzsaw of opposition from both defense attorneys and prosecutors. The lobbying effort by the Illinois State Bar, Illinois state’s attorneys and Illinois public defenders associations forced lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee on Criminal Law to reconsider their position.


“This, in my mind, has thrown a very interesting dynamic into something that early on was very easy to get behind and strongly support,” said Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica. “This opposition has greatly convoluted that.”


Three-ring circus


A good state’s attorney will keep crime victims abreast of developments during trial, said Jim Covington, the bar association’s director of legislative affairs. But the amendment would have given victims and their lawyers more input in the courtroom.


Under the amendment, victims would have:


* The right to be heard at any post-arraignment court proceeding;


* Access to relevant documents relating to the defendant;


* Be considered if and when bail for the offender is being contemplated; and


* Have the ability to back up those rights in courts that have jurisdiction on the case.


Covington said it would be impractical to allow victims the right to be heard at any post-arraignment court proceeding.


“It would undermine the presumption of innocence if you add a third — someone besides the state and the defendant, a victim or his or her lawyer — involved in the case from that point forward,” Covington said.


Allowing the victim to participate before a defendant is convicted would transform the court proceeding from a two-ring circus to a three-ring circus, he said.


Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, one of many groups backing the amendment, said it mostly deals with the pre-trial phase.


Private information


The bar association also took issue with victims obtaining access to reports related to the defendant.


“The way this is worded, the right to have access, that kind of information could end up on ‘Nancy Grace,’” Covington said. “I know what they were trying to do there, but the way that’s drafted, we believe it would lead to a lot of sensitive and private information being released about people who — it’s not their fault they’re in a pre-sentence investigation because they were associated or had some contact with the defendant during the commission of that crime.”


Poskin argued that prosecutors have nothing to fear.


“They wouldn’t have any right to dictate or control discretionary or strategic decisions that have to do with the trial,” she said.


Under the amendment, the victim would have the right to confer with prosecutors, but could not demand specific charges be filed, Poskin said.


Appellate rights


One of the arguments advocates of the amendment have used is that while Illinois law already outlines a victim’s rights during trial, those rights don’t exist at the appellate level.


“It (the law today) specifically bars the right of the victim to seek any appellate relief,” Poskin said. “The right to appeal … is a matter of course for our judicial process.”


Covington disagreed.


“That’s never been tested by a victim,” he said, adding that it is in the best interest for prosecutors to always work with victims on a case. 


“Judges and prosecutors don’t want to embarrass or degrade a witness because they are going to end up on the front page of their local newspaper. They just try not to do it,” Covington said.


Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser said that while he always keeps victims in mind, prosecutors have to be able to do their jobs.


“Prosecutorial decisions are made every day to both protect victims, to protect the public, but also to ensure justice is done and that those that are guilty are convicted,” Milhiser said. “So there are rights given to defendants in regards to certain time constraints.


“I think it’s important to make sure that all parties work together to make sure prosecutors can continue to prosecute and convict these individuals.”


David Thomas can be reached at (217) 782-6292.