India’s criminal justice system needs to look at victim impact statements in the US to help victims achieve closure.
Perhaps you have figured out by now that little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world,” said a woman to celebrity gymnastics coach Larry Nassar in the US earlier this year.
Nassar had already been convicted of sexually assaulting girls he was training. But before the court could decide how many years he would spend in jail, it gave his 156 victims a chance to address him in court.
One victim said about the experience, “I got up there and I looked him in the eye, I just knew that I had a lot to say and that whatever happened, I was going to make him look at me and make him listen. It felt like I was back in control… He did look at me. In fact, he cried during my statement.”
‘Victim impact statements’ are a part of the criminal justice system in the US. A victim can send it in writing or read it out in court. There was, for instance, a 23-year-old’s victim impact statement at Stanford that went viral.
Justice must not only be done, but seem to be done. Victim impact statements help with the part about making justice seem to be done. That is useful not just for victims, but also for society, helping assert among the public what is right and what is wrong, reminding people of the emotional trauma heinous crimes cause.
Public debate on justice for heinous crimes in India has two sides. One demands death penalty, because nothing less would be justice. The other side says revenge is not justice. But what is justice?
Conviction is justice
President Ram Nath Kovind has rejected the mercy petition of a man who killed a family of seven in Bihar in 2006. The government has amended the law to make child rape punishable by death, and the Supreme Court will soon decide if Nirbhaya’s murderers and rapists will be hanged.
Some say death penalty is necessary for the victims to be able to move on, but that is not the case. The hanging of a criminal will not make a family grieve any less about the loss of their loved one.
Victims need closure, and the starting point of closure is conviction itself.
Asumal Sirumalani Harpalani alias Sant Shri Asaram Ji Bapu was recently convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at his ashram in Jodhpur in 2013.
The girl, now 21, and her family say they were able to get sound sleep for the first time only when he was convicted. “This episode hampered her studies which she can start once again… we will want her to choose her field and will help her get as much education as she wants,” her father said.
Asaram was in jail for all of the four and a half years. His being in jail was not justice. Justice was when a court of law said, yes, he was guilty of a crime.
In all the debate around punishment, we forget that punishment is given only after conviction. After ruling the accused guilty, courts hold another hearing about punishment.
Punishment matters, but conviction itself is important to victims. It is the moment of truth when the victim feels vindicated, all the slander and lies hurled at her are rejected by an objective authority.
When a guilty party gets away without punishment, it is a grave injustice. When Mayaben Kodnani is acquitted in the 2002 case through legal procedure, it won’t be solace to the families of the dead that she spent many years in jail. A court of law said it couldn’t be sure if she did incite violence. Then who did? That’s injustice. The act of conviction achieves half the purpose of justice.
In 2016, only 1 in 4 rape cases ended in conviction. The conviction rate used to be better. When trials go on for years, they compound the trauma for victims. The knowledge that even after putting up with an endless legal process the accused may go scot free is one of the reasons why most women do not report sexual crimes.
Public discourse on heinous crimes like rape and murder needs to focus more on conviction. When the accused is not even convicted, what’s the use of having strong punishment written down in the statute books?
Moving on is justice
It took a public movement to bring Manu Sharma to justice for shooting Jessica Lall dead just because she refused to serve him a drink. After he’s spent 15 years in jail, Jessica’s sister Sabrina Lall says she has no objection to his release. “It will be like a catharsis to forgive and move on. I also need to get on with my life,” she added.
If a criminal is not convicted, victims and their families may never be able to move on. Victims and their families are able to move on if they feel that a wrong has been called a wrong and righted with punishment. That’s why that punishment need not be death penalty. After many years have passed, victims and their families may be able to move on. That is why Sabrina Lall feels the chapter of her sister’s death needs to be closed with a reformed Manu Sharma let out of jail. She doesn’t want to hear his name again.
Such closure for victims and their families takes years. Death penalty can’t achieve that. What can, is speedier justice, higher conviction rates and victim impact statements.