ICYMI: Volunteers are the reason Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma enjoys such widespread support across the state. Read why James Harrison supports SQ 794!
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“Why I Support Marsys’ Law and State Question 794”
I want to express support for Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma and its goal of strengthening crime victims’ rights.
For the last 10 years, I’ve worked directly with crime victims, specifically in Cleveland County. I’ve seen first hand the challenge many victims have navigating our legal system trying to pursue justice.
Fortunately, voters in Oklahoma have the opportunity to change our state constitution and give victims guaranteed rights.
Marsy’s Law would add notification in cases when an offender escapes or absconds from probation and parole. It would also give victims a greater voice and standing.
Yes! It’s difficult to hear critics say Marsy’s Law would be too costly. To me, this comes down to helping people whose lives have been upended. Victims never choose to be a victim, but we can support all our citizens affected by crime in the pursuit of justice.
Many of these affected were friends and family so this holds a special place in my heart and it’s mypassion.
I urge all my fellow Oklahomans to get the word out and vote yes on Marsys Law for Oklahoma SQ 794.
Together we can change how victims and their family’s are treated in my boved state.
James K Harrison
Cleveland County Chair
Marsys Law for Oklahoma SQ 794
For a long time, Leesa Sparks didn’t want to be called by her given first name. She went by Rhae, because hearing “Leesa” reminded her of the voice of her attacker, a man who held her hostage and tortured her for two days.
Her nightmarish experience began in 2013, when she got a call from an ex-boyfriend. He said he was being released from a mental hospital and needed her help. Leesa picked him up and drove him to a hotel. What happened for the next 48 hours would change her life forever.
The man she was trying to help blocked her exit from the hotel room with a refrigerator, restrained her, savagely beat and strangled her, and mentally and emotionally tortured her. After two days of fighting back and struggling just to survive the attacks, Leesa’s attacker decided he couldn’t kill her with his bare hands. It was then that he forced her to take drugs, telling her he was going to make it look like she had overdosed accidentally. If she refused, he said, he would find and hurt her son.
The drugs knocked her unconscious. When she woke up, she was again threatened with death. Leesa’s attacker even told her where he was going to dismember and bury her body. “He kept saying, ‘if I can’t have you, no one can.’ I knew I was going to die,” Leesa said.
After more than 48 hours of captivity, Leesa was able to escape and run to a nearby convenience store, where she called the police. They arrived and arrested her attacker, but what should have been the end of her ordeal was only the beginning of another traumatizing experience: navigating the criminal justice system.
“When the police got to the scene at the store they treated me horribly,” said Leesa. “I will never, ever get over the way I was treated by the police and later the court system and the parole board. It was not right.”
Leesa’s attacker pled guilty to a domestic violence charge, something which she considered wholly inadequate for the level of trauma she suffered. “This was not a ‘domestic dispute,’” Leesa said. “This was kidnapping, attempted murder, and torture. They dropped most of the charges without even asking me.”
Her attacker was sentenced to four years in prison, and Leesa never received notification of court dates or even a notification of her attacker’s sentence. In 2016 he was released for “good behavior.” The Parole Board never notified her he was being released, and a letter she wrote and sent to the Board with the help of a friendly Oklahoma City victims advocate apparently fell on deaf ears.
“No one ever asked me how I felt. No one told me how I could make my voice heard. The fact is that this is a very sick man. A repeat violent offender. He cannot be rehabilitated,” said Leesa.
After being attacked, Leesa suffered from post-traumatic stress. She left Oklahoma, hopping from state to state, before returning and settling in Pottawatomie County. There she connected with a domestic violence agency who introduced her to resources for victims and a strong support network. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t found this county, these advocates, and these people,” said Leesa.
Today, Leesa is still struggling to escape her attacker. Her family receives anonymous calls she suspects are from him. She also received a single dollar bill in the mail with a note that said, “Now my debt to you is paid in full.” “I know it was him, I just can’t prove it,” said Leesa.
Today, she is working with Marsy’s Law to make sure other victims are given guidance and resources that were not made available to her.
“When you become a victim, no one tells you anything,” said Leesa. “No one let me know what resources were available to me or who I could talk to. No one explained to me how the process worked or what was to happen next. Where do I need to go? What do I need to do? How do I protect myself and my family? How do I write a parole letter?”
“When you are beaten up and traumatized, you struggle with not knowing what to do, or where to go, or whom you can go to. When you do find the courage to finally call you get passed around, shrugged off, or ignored. The justice system only focuses on the perpetrator, and often the system is just looking for a quick plea deal. They aren’t thinking about the victims and what has been done to them.
“Marsy’s Law is all about developing a support system for the victims and their families, ensuring they are seen as people and not a docket number. Making sure victims understand their rights and get the resources and advocacy they need. Being informed of all criminal and parole proceedings. Being held accountable for the victims to make sure they are not forgotten.”
“I don’t want another victim to ever have to go through what I have been through. It was unfair and unjust. That’s why I support Marsy’s Law.” said Leesa.
Kelly Vierling, a Stillwater native, says she never had any doubts or concerns about the criminal justice system before tragedy struck her family. “You always just assume the system works until you are thrown into it,” she says.
When her 21-year-old son was shot killed by a woman at a party, she was devastated. Unfortunately, she soon learned the justice system – despite having an aggressive legal and support system in place for accused criminals – largely leaves victims and their families to fend for themselves.
“They didn’t tell us anything,” says Kelly. “When they arrested the woman who shot my son, they didn’t tell me. In fact, I didn’t even speak to the district attorney’s office until she was out on bail.”
When charges were filed and a trial began, the process only got more frustrating for Kelly and her family. The Vierlings were instructed not to show emotion in the court room and not to wear pins with Alex’s face on it. “We were told to sit there silently or be removed. You are forced to be invisible,” says Kelly.
A motion was filed to successfully block the use of any images of Alex while he was alive and healthy. Meanwhile, the defendant and her attorney attacked his character and made statements that Kelly says were blatantly untrue.
Kelly says that throughout the process, her family felt like they had no voice and no representation. “It feels like you are standing in a clear soundproof box screaming at the top of your lungs, but no one can see you or hear you.”
After a mistrial, Alex’s killer was eventually convicted of manslaughter in a second trial. While the Vierlings were invited to speak at the sentencing hearing, she says the process was clearly for show only. “The jury is long gone, the decision has been made and the sentence has been set. Allowing us to speak was just a way of appeasing us.”
Adding insult to injury in this entire process: Alex’s convicted killer had her sentence cut in half and served only 4 months in Payne County Jail.
Understandably, Kelly is angry and frustrated. While her son’s killer enjoyed and benefitted from a long list of Constitutional rights designed to guarantee a fair trial and fair sentencing, the Vierlings have alternated between being ignored and actively silenced.
Kelly wants people to understand that it’s the system, not the people involved with her case, who are at fault. She says Assistant District Attorney Kevin Etherington and her victims’ advocates worked hard to involve her in the process and cared about her and her family. “The system we have in place today gives defense attorneys and their clients the power to re-victimize the victims through the trial proceedings,” she says. “Kevin never let us down. The law itself is what is stripping victims of their rights and dignity.”
For Kelly, Marsy’s Law and the reforms proposed in State Question 794 are a way of fixing a process that is clearly broken. If 794 passes, families like the Vierlings will be required to be notified at each important stage of the criminal justice process: arrest, bonding, trial, and sentencing. If the DA seeks a plea deal, the Vierlings would be consulted. Their right to remain in the courtroom would never be in jeopardy.
These seem like simple, almost obvious, fixes. But for people like Kelly, they are the difference between experiencing justice and being victimized a second time by a system that ignores and mistreats people impacted by violent crimes.
“At the time when our family needed and deserved dignity and respect, we were met with resistance and ignored,” said Kelly. “Our son was treated more like a piece of evidence and less like a real person. I believe Marsy’s Law will change this.”
“There needs to be a purpose behind Alex’s death. If this is it, so be it,” she says.
A postscript from Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma: Kelly’s story has not been ignored in Payne County. One of Marsy’s Law for Oklahoma’s strongest supporters is Payne and Logan County District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas. We are also pleased to have the endorsement of Payne County Clerk Glenna Craig. The effort to improve our criminal justice system and strengthen the rights of victims is a cooperative one, and there are many individuals within the justice system who are eagerly offering their support!
Get out and Vote Yes on 788. Legalize Medical Marijuana here in Oklahoma. We have a great opportunity here to pass this and get people the opportunity for more medical options.