Victim impact statements are a chance for crime victims' and their families to tell their stories. Tuesday state lawmakers considered new legislation to protect that right.
Muskegon County State Representative Holly Hughes introduced House Bill 5407 in the wake of the Jeffrey Willis murder case. Members of the House Law and Justice Committee took testimony on the proposed legislation Tuesday.
Willis was convicted, last year, for the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch. He is also awaiting trial for the murder and kidnapping of Jessica Heeringa, who disappeared in 2013 from a gas station in Norton Shores where she worked.
During his December sentencing, a judge allowed Willis to leave the courtroom before members of the Bletsch family could make their victim impact statements. The judge told those at the sentencing he couldn't find any state law that required a defendent to be present for victim impact statements. Adding insult to injury, he blew a kiss at the family on the way out of the courtroom.
Bletsch's sister Jessica Josephson and Bletsch's mother Debra Reamer both spoke at Tuesday's hearing.
The mother and daughter told committee members that currently state law sides with criminals instead of victims and their families.
"They have more rights than we do," Reamer said.
The House Law and Justice Committee has the power to move the bill one step closer to becoming law.
Josephson says when defendants don't listen to victim impact statements it removes an important step in the grieving process.
"I waited years to confront that man," Josephson said. "I believe it is part of the healing process."
The cold shoulder Willis gave to Bletsch's family angered many who had been following the case, including Hughes. She subsequently introduced a bill that would require anyone convicted of a crime be forced to hear those statements.
In a statement Hughes said:
"This bill is my top priority this year, so I'm moving forward rapidly with the committee chairman, who has agreed to take it up quickly." She added, "Rebekah Bletsch's family deserved to be heard on Dec. 18, so I appreciate my House colleagues will hear from this family on Tuesday."
As written the bill would strengthen the state's crime victim's rights act giving judges clear authority to require defendants to remain in the courtroom.
A judge could waive the law if the defendant is disruptive or if there's concern over safety of the public or defendant.
"We know we have a couple more trials with this individual," said Hughes. "I don't want another family in Muskegon or anywhere in Michigan to have to go through this."
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