- The vital importance of victim impact statements in the court process
Compiled by Annalise Kempen in cooperation with Rhona van Niekerk*
In high profile cases such as that of the Modimolle monster or Oscar Pistorius, the public heard, through the media, what impact the violent crime had on the victim and their families. They heard about the psychological and physical scars which both victims and even their siblings could carry with them, potentially for the rest of their lives. However, not all victims have the opportunity or courage to verbalise every way in which crime has impacted on their lives when they stand in the witness box. This makes one wonder - is there someone/something who can “speak” on the victim’s behalf to show the court how that person’s life has changed since the crime? Fortunately, the answer is yes.
What is a victim?
The Department of Social Development issued a booklet entitled Minimum standards for service delivery in victim empowerment (Victims of crime and violence), in which the following definition is used to describe a victim: “A person who, individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their rights, through acts or omissions that are violations of national criminal laws or of internationally recognised norms relating to human rights.” In this same booklet, the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power notes that a person may be considered a victim regardless of whether the perpetrator is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the familial relationship between the perpetrator and victim. The term “victim” can also include, where appropriate, the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress to preventing victimisation.
Criminologists as experts in the courtroom
The late world-renowned forensic criminologist, Dr Irma Labuschagne, brought the important contribution of criminologists to the criminal justice system to the fore in highly publicised cases such as that of Najwa Petersen, who killed her husband Taliep, and the Skierlik shooter, Johan Nel, in which she presented expert evidence. However, the introduction of criminologists in the courtroom started during the 1980s in an organised manner under the guidance of Judge Richard Goldstone and, ever since, criminologists have assisted with criminological pre-sentence reports in many criminal trials. But, a decade ago, the use of criminologists was not yet that common and Van der Hoven (2006) notes that only a small number of criminologists compiled pre-sentence reports for the courts, with an even smaller number who are full-time forensic criminologists. And yet, with the amount of serious violent crime committed in South Africa, one could argue that there is a great need for such experts to comment professionally on both factors that impacted on an accused to commit a crime and the impact of that crime on the victim.