Avremi Zippel: Utah SB 87 would harm the victims of crime

The delicate balance between victim and defendant would be upset.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to the Senate chamber at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Friday January 20, 2023.

If you’re a citizen of Utah, you’re probably aware that we’re in the thick of the 45-day legislative session. When sweeping policy changes are debated and ultimately enacted (or not) for the benefit of all three million of us.

Each year, you’ve got your headliners. The bills that capture the lion’s share of attention, due to the impending impact the potential law might have.

There’s another bill out there that’s not really angling for your attention. Doesn’t have the most dramatic sounding name. “Criminal Prosecution Amendments.” You don’t hang out with a lot of criminals, so this probably doesn’t really affect you, right?

Oh, so very wrong.

You probably know someone in your life that has been the victim of a felony or class A misdemeanor. You’ve probably read news articles of the horrific crimes that Utahns have suffered — especially children. Under the current statute, a crime victim who is the main witness in a criminal proceeding will be cross-examined by defense counsel at a potential trial. These are the rights afforded to a defendant under the Sixth Amendment, and I’d argue that we’re a fairer and freer democracy for it.

In the lead up to the trial process, there will ordinarily be a preliminary hearing. The purpose of a “prelim” is meant to be a check on prosecutors, to ensure that they have probable cause to present to the court, that yes, the crime happened as charged and that the defendant is involved.The prosecutor carries the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

Furthermore, throughout this process, the prosecution is obligated to share all evidence they have with the defense. That obligation is not reciprocal; the defense has no legal obligation to share its evidence with the prosecution. They have access to a key witness — the defendant. The system is designed this way to protect the defendant. Defendants have constitutional rights, which are upheld.

Since 1987, when the victims bill of rights was passed, Utah has been working towards creating a balance between upholding defendants rights, and protecting victims. The rights awarded to victims ensure victims are treated with the basic morsels of fairness, dignity, and respect. This balance is not easy, but Utah has been fighting to protect the rights which the Utah State Constitution gives to victims of crime. Not if SB 87 gets its way. The balance Utah has fought so hard for, will be quickly diminished.

The sponsors of SB 87, want to create a new step in the process, where the victim and witnesses of the crime could be subpoenaed by the defense. Not to be cross-examined in front of a judge and jury, but rather, to be deposed in a private setting by the defense. It would apply to victims and witnesses as young as 14 years old.

Want to have an attorney represent you at these proceedings? Sure, go for it. On your own dime. Don’t want to answer a question — any question asked? You can object, but do you, as a nonlegal professional, know how to object? And even if you do object, it doesn’t matter, you must answer the question.

There are defense attorneys in our state who are good, honest and trustworthy people. Our society is better off for them. And there are defense attorneys in our state who will stop at nothing to get their client off the hook. Respect, sensitivity, trauma-informed practices, or just basic human decency matter little; they’ve got a job to do.

I’ve sat through hours of cross-examination from two of them at a criminal trial, and that was hard enough. We can’t let more victims go through an additional interrogation without the guaranteed protections of a courtroom.

SB 87 would be a travesty for victims across Utah. If passed, it will likely affect someone you love. It would set back victims rights in our State by 30 years. SB 87 is not Utah. There are 105 groups, agencies and individuals that have signed onto a letter urging our legislators to vote against SB 87. There are elected Republicans and Democrats on that list, together with law enforcement, victim service providers, prosecutors, and dozens of other organizations. The key players that work in our criminal justice system everyday and work to protect not only our victims, but society as a whole, are united in their message that this harms Utah.

I’d ask you to join your voice to theirs and urge your representation on Capitol Hill to say no to SB 87 and SJR 6.

Avremi Zippel

Rabbi Avremi Zippel is a survivor of child sexual abuse and advocates for victims of all kinds across the State. He currently serves as the Chair of the Utah Crime Victims Council.