Victim Impact Statements

A recent article in the Edmonton Journal claimed that Alberta Judges paid little attention to the impact statements prepared by victims of crime. This provoked a lively discussion at a recent meeting of our Victims of Homicide Support Group, where members began to talk about the experiences they had had in preparing and presenting such statements in Court proceedings following the murder of their loved one.

Those who had prepared impact statements made no bones about what a difficult task it was to put such a statement together—the piles of discarded drafts crumpled up and thrown on the floor, the tears shed, and the slow progress made in preparing what they wanted to say. Also, their feelings of success and completion when their statement was finished, and then either read, or handed in to the court for others to read.

Oddly enough, though, and no matter what the Journal said, in most cases what the Judge did with the statement did not seem to be of critical importance, The victim’s feeling of achievement and closure came from having put into words the events that had taken place, and experiencing once again the intense feelings these had caused to the writer. That whole process was therapeutic. What the judge did with such a statement was not the victim’s business.

Annette Stanwick, a nurse and administrator at the Gimbel Eye Centre in Calgary, had a brother, a long distance truck driver, whom she lost to a murder taking place in Richmond, Virginia, thousands of miles away from his home. He had been sleeping in his rig overnight when it was broken into and he was shot as part of a robbery attempt.

In her book Forgiveness she describes the turmoil of feelings that boiled up in her as a result of this crime, feelings primarily of numbness, anger and fear. She points out, however, that it is only when people squarely face what has happened and mourn their loss that they will be ready to move on with their lives, sadder but wiser. Those who fail to do this are condemned to an endless revolving of the hurt in their minds and bodies. Avoiding the full realization of the loss, no matter how painful that is, can result in serious and long lasting mental and physical problems.

Annette goes on to describe what can follow this acceptance and grief. Accepting what has happened will lead to an interest in the perpetrators, their background and the motivation that led them to this crime. It leads further to recognizing that we all have made mistakes. Offering forgiveness rather than seeking revenge is a sure path to healing for all concerned. As she puts it:

“Despite my fears, God’s healing mercy has moved me from a role of victim to a role of victor… My weakness, depression and grief were replaced with new strength, courage and energy. I began focusing on others instead of ‘poor me’. I went from weeping at the hideousness life had handed me to feeling a pure sense of joy at the vision God had created for my life.”

So her book ends with the moving impact statement she presented to the Court, describing in detail the mental suffering the crime had caused her, yet finally containing an offer of forgiveness to the two persons guilty of the murder. So what could so easily have become a festering sore has been transformed by her actions and by God’s grace into a source of reconciliation, fulfillment and peace. And her story of forgiveness has had its impact on many who have heard it. The hand of God has been at work!

After all, in Jesus’s teachings, “loving one’s enemies”, reconciliation and forgiveness are what it’s all about. It’s good to hear, though, from one who has ‘been there’, the important truth that there is a proper path to follow in coming to the stage where such behaviour is possible. Forgiveness can only be sincerely practiced after we have faced to the depths and have grieved the agony of our loss.

 – Anglican Messenger, March 2009