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Victims of Crime Act

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Location: Washington, DC


VICTIMS OF CRIME ACT -- (House of Representatives - April 14, 2005)

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Price of Georgia). Under the Speaker's announced policy of January 4, 2005, the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Poe) is recognized for 60 minutes.

Mr. POE. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak for a group that live in the silent storm of stressful sadness. They live with the vicious wounds of being a victim of crime in America. To be a victim, to be chosen to be the prey by a predator, to have a life stolen or broken by criminal conduct, Mr. Speaker, it is a terrible and tragic travesty. But to have your own government desert you, abandon you, too, is an injustice. It is an injustice to the injured, to the innocent, to the victims.

Mr. Speaker, the Victims of Crime Act, VOCA, the VOCA fund was created in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan to provide the most consistent stable source of funding for services to crime victims. It included counseling, victim advocacy programs, safety planning, State victim compensation funds that would help crime victims recover the costs associated with being a victim. Yet the current budget proposes to rescind the over $1.2 billion presently in this fund and redirect its resources to the Department of the Treasury, where it will be treated in the general revenue. It would go to the greater business of the general fund.

Mr. Speaker, VOCA funds, these funds that we are talking about, are not derived from taxpayers paying dollars to the Treasury of the United States. But these funds come from fines and forfeitures and fees paid by convicted Federal offenders. This is an offender's accountability for the harm they have caused when they committed the crimes against citizens. It is a wonderful, successful idea. It makes outlaws pay for the damage they have caused; makes them pay for the system that they have created. It makes them financially pay the victims for these crimes.

In fact, there are over 4,400 programs that provide vital victim assistance services to nearly 4 million victims a year because of these funds that are contributed by criminals.

Half of these victims receiving these services are victims of domestic violence. Other victims are victims of sexual assaults, child abuse, drunk driving, elder abuse, robbery, assault, and old-fashioned stealing. They receive this type of assistance through shelters and rape crisis centers, child abuse treatment programs. Prosecutors' offices received help, law enforcement agencies and victim advocates. All of these agencies received funds paid into this fund by criminals.

State crime victims compensation funds with VOCA funds help crime victims to pay for out-of-pocket expenses that they incurred while the criminal committed a crime against them. These expenses include medical care, counseling, lost wages, funeral costs, and many, many more.

You see, when a crime occurs, the victim has no recourse financially against a criminal, even though the criminal may be convicted and sent to our Federal penitentiaries. Criminals just do not have any money. So victims are compensated through this fund through fees paid by other criminals.

Many victims, when they suffer criminal conduct against them, have no insurance. This is what they look to to save their livelihood and their lives. Without victims' compensation funds in the United States, funded by VOCA programs, paid by the defendants, victims have two choices, live without this aid or ask taxpayers to pay in some form of taxation what defendants are now paying for and what defendants should pay for in the future.

Mr. Speaker, as the founder of the Victims Rights Caucus along with the gentlewoman from Florida (Ms. Harris) and on the other side of the aisle the gentleman from California (Mr. Costa), all of us are united in this decision that reducing VOCA funding is an injustice to the people of the United States, the good people, the people who never asked to be victims of crime but yet they were chosen by some criminal to be a victim.

It is ironic, Mr. Speaker, this is Victims Rights Week, the week that we proclaim in the United States the worth and value of victims, and yet it is the week that the budget is considering to reduce these funds, take these funds donated by criminals and put it in the general fund. How ironic this is.

Mr. Speaker, in all of my career I have been involved in the political process, I have been involved in the justice system. First in the District Attorneys Office where I served as a chief felony prosecutor in Houston, Texas, for about 8 years and then a judge in Texas for 22 years where I saw 25,000, 25,000 defendants come to court charged with crimes against an equal number of victims. And during all of that time I have witnessed in the United States the victims' movement, how victims have been treated in the system. And sometimes we have forgotten as a people in 2005 how victims have been treated over the past.

Things have not always been as good for victims after the crime as it is now; and I think a history lesson is due, Mr. Speaker.

I tried numerous cases as a prosecutor, numerous defendants, death penalty cases, but I would like to talk about one person who really showed me the way of how victims continue to be victims after the crime was committed. And I have changed her name because her family still lives in Houston, Texas.

Back in the late seventies there was a young lady who was married and had a couple of sons that lived in Houston, Texas. She worked in the daytime. At night, she went to school working on a masters degree at one of our universities.

She left the school one evening. Her name was Lisa. And she was driving down one of our freeways and she had car trouble so she exited the freeway, Mr. Speaker, came into a gas station that she thought was open. It was not open. It was closed, but she did not know that. And she got out of the vehicle and started talking to an individual that she thought was a service station attendant.

Luke Johnson was not the service station attendant. He was just hanging around. One thing led to another, and Luke Johnson pulled out a pistol. He kidnapped Lisa, took her and her vehicle to a remote area of East Texas that we call the Piney Woods. He sexually assaulted her and pistol-whipped her. In fact, he beat her so bad that he thought he had killed her. Later, when he was arrested, he was mad that he had not killed her.

Lisa was a remarkable woman. She survived that brutal attack. She was found about 2 days after she was abandoned in the woods by a hunter that was going through that area. He stopped, rescued her and made sure that her medical needs were met.

After she recovered from this vicious attack, Luke Johnson was arrested and charged with aggravated rape. I prosecuted him for this conduct. A jury of 12 citizens in Houston, Texas, heard the case, heard Lisa testify in this case. Luke Johnson was convicted and received the maximum sentence of 99 years in the Texas State penitentiary as he earned and as he deserved.

Now we would have hoped as a people, as a culture that justice would have been done, that we would go on, that life would be good, but that is not, Mr. Speaker, the world that we live in. Because we live in a world far different from that.

As Luke Johnson is shipped off to the penitentiary where he belonged, Lisa could not quite cope with that crime. The first thing that happened was she never went back to school, never wanted to go on that campus again. The next thing that occurred was she lost her job. In fact, she was fired. She could not focus, and she bounced around from job to job. She started abusing drugs, first alcohol and then everything else.

Her husband, the sort that he was, decided he no longer wanted her. He sued her for divorce, convinced a judge in Texas that she was not mentally capable of raising those children that she had, and he got custody of both of them. He moved out of the State of Texas where he is somewhere else in this country today.

Then not long after all of this occurred, Lisa's mother gave me a phone call and told me that Lisa had taken her own life and she left a note that I still have in my office today and that note says, "I am tired of running from Luke Johnson in my nightmares."

You see, Lisa faced this entire crime alone. There was no VOCA. There were no funds for victim advocates that could sit and be with Lisa through the trial. There were no funds for therapy and counseling after this crime and after the trial. Lisa was on her own when she testified, and she was on her own after the crime was over, and she received the death penalty for being a victim of crime. Luke Johnson, he just spent a few years in the Texas penitentiary for that crime, and he is running loose somewhere in Texas.

Times did change from this type of conduct where victims were abandoned by the process, and we have progressed. When I was a judge, to show you the example of how people through VOCA make a difference, I will tell you about a second case.

This case involved a little girl named Susie. A first grader in Houston, Texas, she walked to school every day and walked home. You know, in the big city we do not normally like our kids walking to school or walking home. It is not safe. Susie's case proves the point.

One afternoon, she is walking home from school, a 7-year-old first grader in Houston. This individual, who had been stalking her for some time, pulled up beside her, rolled down the window of his pickup truck, yelled out the window, Hey, little girl. I lost my dog. Can you help me find my dog?

She stopped long enough for this perpetrator, this predator to jump out of his vehicle, grab Susie, kidnap her and take off. He left Houston, Texas, and went down to the Gulf Coast down to the beach area of Galveston, Texas, about 50 miles from Houston. He took her to a secluded portion of that beach area, and he did to that little girl, that 7-year-old, exactly what he wanted to for as long as he wanted to do it. After he was through having his way with Susie, he abandoned her in the darkness of the night and fled. Before he left, however, he took all of her clothes away from her.

About the time the sun was coming up, Susie, in shock, walking up and down the beach, was rescued by a sheriff's deputy that was patrolling the area. She received medical aid and the attention that she needed.

The person that committed this crime was arrested out of State, extradited back to Texas to stand trial for this crime of aggravated sexual assault of a child, a 7-year-old girl.

The case was tried in my courtroom. It was sort of a high publicity case because of who the defendant was. But when Susie took the witness stand, sat next to me on the witness stand, the prosecutor started asking her questions and she turned and saw the perpetrator in the courtroom, she could not say anything. She did not say anything. All she did was stare at the offender. Eventually, she started to cry. And, Mr. Speaker, she has cried a long time. She probably thought she was alone. She was alone, but she could not testify.

Well, what do you do? Well, this was the main witness. Without this witness, the State did not have a case. The prosecutor asked for a postponement of the trial. I quickly granted that. We recessed. We came back a day or two later, and we started up the trial again.

Susie testified, sat next to me and testified. And that day she was able to testify in detail, graphic detail what happened to her when she left school one afternoon and what this perpetrator did to her.

The difference, the difference was there was another person in the courtroom, seated on the back row looking at her, telling her in her own way, you can testify. You can do this. I believe in you.

Who was it? It was the victim advocate that worked with the District Attorney's Office that walked that little girl through that case. And because that woman was in the courtroom and because she had worked with this victim before and Susie saw her, it gave her the courage to testify. And that predator, that child predator was convicted of that case because one person, a victim advocate, was present in the courtroom.

See, there was a time there were no victim advocates in the courtroom, and that time has passed, and part of the reason is that VOCA funds are used to fund advocates of victims in our courtrooms.

One of cases that I tried where I met my first victim advocate was a case that was called the choker rapist. What this individual did, he assaulted co-eds from the University of Texas, choked them and sexually assaulted them. He did this numerous times. He was sent to the Texas penitentiary. By some error or mistake, having been sentenced to about 700 years in the penitentiary, he was released after a short period of time. He came to Houston, and he continued these ways of assaulting co-eds from the University of Houston. He was captured again, and this case was tried. The victim in that case was similar to Susie in that it was difficult for her to testify. She was older. She was a college student.

The first victim advocate that I ever laid eyes on in 1984 was sitting in the courtroom, helping this witness keep with the trial and the crime and testifying. That person's name was Anne Seymour, and that was many years ago. But yet Anne Seymour and many like her work with victims on a daily basis, and part of the way they are able to take care of victims is by funding that they get from VOCA each year.

Mr. Speaker, many people do not realize that when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, now 10 years ago, that travesty, that assault on American citizens, VOCA funds were available and used to help those victims cope with that emergency. And those funds were available immediately so that victims and their families could be helped.

I would like to read a letter from Marsha Kite. Marsha Kite's daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, and her letter states how she feels as the mother of a murder victim about the VOCA funding.

She says: We are only days away from the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and I hear that there is consideration for emptying out our Federal crime victims fund.

Number 1, this critical fund that is paid for by criminals and not taxpayers.

Two, the fund helped thousands of families and survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, including my own family. The administration needs to take a hard look at what they are contemplating and realize the devastating impact it will have on programs that provide direct services to crime victims, including crisis intervention, emergency shelters, emergency transportation, counseling and the criminal justice advocacy programs, all of which were provided to Oklahoma City families.

Number 3, no person, regardless of life choices or situations, should be met with the harmful or inadequate services. Each victim should be provided with the opportunity to access services based on their needs and not be further traumatized by a system that is neither prepared nor underfunded.

So, Mr. Speaker, these funds have helped numerous victims and their families, and it would be a total injustice to cut these funds and put them in the abyss of the general revenue.

Other examples of VOCA funding go to domestic violence shelters. Domestic violence shelters are a necessary requirement in our culture, and good people throughout this United States organize and establish these shelters to protect victims of domestic violence.

We have such a one in my hometown of Humble, Texas. It is called Family Time, and Family Time is available on a 24-hour basis for victims of domestic violence where they can go and find safety when they have to flee their own homes. If they do not go to these domestic violence shelters, where will they go?

If it was not for these shelters, many of these abused women would go directly back to that house and be victimized and abused again. These shelters are saving their lives. Many of these shelters rely on VOCA funding, and they would close down without the help of these funds, and these women and these children would be sent back to an environment of violence, domestic violence.

These are just a few examples, Mr. Speaker, of how these funds are spent.

It is interesting how we, as a Nation, are very concerned about the victims in lands far, far away across the seas, the recent tsunami crisis, where we have President Bush and President Clinton raising money in the United States to help these victims. While it is very important that we show that we are compassionate to peoples all over the world, Mr. Speaker, charity begins at home, and we need to take care of our American families first and then the world families, if necessary.

So we must do both, but we must never neglect our own people, our victims for some other Nation.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to just continue this history lesson talking about children, children in the criminal justice system, specifically children who are the victims of sexual assault.

There was a time, Mr. Speaker, when a child that was sexually assaulted would have to go through a long process in the criminal justice system. It in itself was a crime. The victim would be interviewed, usually by a police officer, a stranger. Another police officer would instruct the victim to go to the county hospital. They would wait in the emergency room along with everybody else that goes to the emergency room. They would be seen by a doctor that may or may not know anything about sexual assault cases, a doctor that sometimes was not even available to testify at the trial because they had been sent to some other hospital in the Nation.

After being seen by this doctor, then the child would have to go to the police station to be interviewed again, and there were occasions in my home city of Houston that these victims would sometimes get on the elevator to go to be interviewed by the homicide detective, and the perpetrator would be on the elevator as well going to be interviewed by another detective.

Then, after this was over with, they would have to go to the district attorney's office and be interviewed for the trial by a prosecutor, sometimes a prosecutor that has never tried a sexual assault case, and eventually the trial would come and those traumas would continue.

Mr. Speaker, we are fortunate to say that those days are over. Those are no longer the days of children that are sexually assaulted in the United States because of groups like the National Children's Alliance here in Washington, D.C., where I am a board member. That alliance has over 400 children advocacy centers throughout the United States, and what those centers do is this.

When a child is sexually assaulted, rather than be bounced from place to place, agency to agency, they are taken to one location, a child friendly location, and probably the best example of this center is in Houston, Texas, Children's Assessment Center, that is a privately funded, publicly funded establishment, and here is what happens.

When a child is sexually assaulted, they go to this center. It is a very friendly, child friendly center, and they are interviewed only by child experts. They are interviewed about the crime and what took place. Their medical needs are met there by qualified doctors and nurses that deal with child sexual assault victims. The child, after this occurs, is allowed to talk to a prosecutor that deals only with child assault cases. The child then, before and after they testify, are provided therapy and counseling by child psychiatrists and experts, and they do all of this at the center. Every time they need to be involved in the case, they go to this one place, very child friendly, and because of centers like the Children's Assessment Center in Houston, Texas, and 59 others in Texas, 400 or more in the United States, child victims are able to cope and recover from the tragedy of sexual assault against them.

Children's Assessment Center in Houston sees 350 children a month that have been sexually abused and assaulted. They receive VOCA funds, as well as funds from the community, from private foundations and the county government. The funds at the Children's Assessment Center go for a therapist, a bilingual therapist, that is able to talk to children that do not speak just English. That therapist, along with other therapists, will disappear if VOCA funds are cut.

Just to show an impact on these centers, they constantly help kids cope with the crime. It is more important to help the child recover than even to have the perpetrator convicted, but they do many things with these kids to help them realize what has occurred in their own lives and how they can vent by even writing a letter to the perpetrator.

I have one such letter that was written by a little girl to the person who sexually assaulted her that I have received from the Children's Assessment Center in Houston today, and she starts out her letter this way.

These are some of the things that I have been wanting to say to you. I used to think that you were a nice person and that you would never hurt me. Then things changed. After you began touching me, I thought that you were not a nice person, and I wondered if you were hurting Mommy, too. When I think of you touching me, I get very mad, and I sometimes am sad. You are a jerk and a child molester. Sometimes when I think of you, I am mad at you for hurting me. I want to tell you that I am glad you are in jail and you cannot hurt me anymore. If I ever, or when I see you again I will tell Mommy and call the cops, and I will make a mad face at you. Ha, ha, you thought I would never tell but now everyone knows. I also know you did this to my sister, too. It is signed by a little girl.

Letters such as this help victims, children cope with the crime that has been committed against them. These Children's Assessment Centers all over the country, God bless them, are doing a work to save America's greatest resource, our children. VOCA funds go to these centers, and without this funding, many of these centers would not be able to open the doors.

So, Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues in the House on both sides of the aisle to join me and the other 50 Members and counting who have signed a letter to the Committee on Appropriations chairman to save the VOCA funds.

Grassroots victims organizations across the Nation have been flooding congressional offices with phone calls and pleading for their representatives to save VOCA and for them to sign this letter that 50 have already signed. Fourteen national victim advocacy organizations have partnered in support of saving the crime victims fund. And they are, Mr. Speaker, these organizations that work victims: Justice Solutions, Incorporated; Mothers Against Drunk Driving; the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence; the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards; the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators; the National Center For Victims of Crime; the National Children's Alliance; the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; the National Crime Victim Research and Treatment Center; the National Network to End Domestic Violence; the National Organization for Victim Assistance; National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children; the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; the Victim Assistance Legal Organization; and even way down in Midland, Texas, the Midland County, Texas, Sheriff's Crisis Intervention Center which has 35 volunteers. That organization will cease to exist if these funds are cut.

We all are concerned, Mr. Speaker, about the budget, about the deficit, about Federal spending. We all are in agreement about that, but maybe we need to reprioritize how we spend money. Maybe we should reconsider some of the foreign giveaway programs that this country is involved in, giving away money, and maybe we should think about victims here at home, remembering that the victims fund, VOCA, is not funded by taxpayers, but it is funded by criminals, as it ought to be, and they should continue to pay, pay for the crimes that they have brought upon the good people of our community.

Mr. Speaker, victims pay. They always pay. They continue to pay after the crime is over with, and we need to be compassionate and sensitive about them because the same Constitution that protects defendants of crime protects victims of crime as well.

Lastly, Mr. Speaker, I would like to talk about a person that I never met. He was an individual that did not have much going for him. He was born the same year that my son Curt was born in the 1970s, and my son now is a big, old strapping kid in his twenties, and sometimes when I look at Curt, I think about Kevin Wanstraf and the people I prosecuted that killed him.

Kevin Wanstraf was born in Mississippi. His mother did not want him. So she dumped him off to some charity. The charity, though, found a home for him, and the home was in Houston, Texas. The people who adopted Kevin Wanstraf, John and Diana Wanstraf, could not have children of their own. They were middle-class folks, and so they found Kevin, they adopted him, and they made him their son, and they were happy as a family could be.

But unbeknownst to this family, Diana Wanstraf's brother, Markum was his name, was plotting to kill this entire family. While he was plotting to kill the family, Markum Duffsmith, along with three other henchmen years before, had murdered Markum's own mother, and because of the way that crime was committed, he was able to convince law enforcement that it was a suicide, and he was not prosecuted until after he had murdered his nephew Kevin.

He collected the estate of his mother, and he spent it, and when he was through spending the money, he needed more money. So he then plotted this other murder, the murder of John Wanstraf, Diana Wanstraf and Kevin Wanstraf.

One evening while John and Diana were watching Channel 13 news in Houston, Texas, two people that Markum had hired, posing to be real estate agents, forced their way into the Wanstraf home and first shot John, then shot Diana and then, while Kevin Wanstraf, a 14-month-old baby, was asleep in his baby bed curled up to his favorite Teddy bear, clothed in blue terry cloth pajamas, dreaming about whatever those babies dream about, he was murdered. He was shot in the head. He was sacrificed on the altar of greed.

Because of the work of a couple of Houston police officers, all those killers were brought to justice. Two of them received the death penalty and were later executed, and two received long prison terms.

Over the years, I have kept a photograph of Kevin Wanstra on my desk, as a prosecutor, as a judge for 22 years, and now as a fortunate Member of Congress representing the Second Congressional District of Texas. You see, Kevin Wanstra never made it to his second birthday. He was denied the right to live. He was a victim of criminal conduct.

Our Nation, Mr. Speaker, needs to be concerned about the Kevin Wanstras in our culture because they have the right to live as well. Kevin Wanstra will never grow up, he will never be in the backyard playing catch with his father, will never play football, never have a date, never get married, all because he was chosen to be prey, the victim of a crime.

So our Nation, Mr. Speaker, during this Victims' Rights Week, needs to be determined. It needs to be reinforced as a culture that we will not stand idly by while people are maimed and hurt in our culture, that we will support them, that we will be compassionate toward them, and we will make sure that criminals who commit crimes against them will pay, and they will financially pay in the funding of VOCA.

Mr. Speaker, we as a people will never be judged the way we treat the rich, the famous, the important, the wealthy, the special folks. We will be judged by the way we treat the innocent, the weak, the elderly, the children. I hope when we are judged, Mr. Speaker, we are judged favorably.

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