COLUMBIA - A recently-found, decades-old mistake called attention this week to the rights of crime victims in the probation and parole process of their offenders.
The Missouri Department of Corrections freed convicted killer James Gant in 2010, 34 years into his more than 200-year sentence for murder. On October 7, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that the family of Brenda Hendren, the young girl Gant murdered, was never invited to his parole hearing or informed of his release.
The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole contacted the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's office in December of 1985, requesting contact information for Gant's victims.
"The initial letter that was sent back to the Department of Corrections, in my understanding, had no further contact information for the surviving family members for the Hendrens but did have information for the other victims," said Mark Koch, who works as a victim advocate in the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
Although it was before his time in the office, Koch said he understands an unfortunate mistake was made. "I think it was a combination of human error and system error," he said.
But that letter was sent in 1985, and Gant wasn't released on parole until 2011.
Koch said Gant probably went up for parole numerous times, "and every time the department referred back to that letter that had no information, really."
Missouri Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Cline sent this statement to KOMU 8 News:
"Victim input is both important and valued, particularly when it comes to better informing the parole release process. Toward that end, the Board of Probation and Parole makes an effort to contact all victims and the family members of victims who provide contact information to the board, either through the local prosecutor's office or by directly contacting the Office of Victim Services."
KOMU 8 News asked Cline for further information to find out if the Board of Probation and Parole is relying on outdated victim contact information in other cases as well. Cline did not respond to those requests.
Missouri's victims' rights system has changed since 1985. "There were no crime victims rights. There was no office of victim services set up," Koch said.
Koch was referring to the constitutional amendment Missouri ratified in 1992. The Missouri Crime Victim Rights Amendment gave crime victims the right to be informed of and present at criminal proceedings and the right to be informed of escape or release of the defendant, among others. The amendment led to the start of the Office of Victim Services at the Department of Corrections as well as Victims Response Teams at prosecuting attorney's offices across the state.
The Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has its own Crime Victims Response Team. The team is made up of several advocates who help victims throughout the investigation and trial process, as well as afterward.
The funding and resources dedicated to the Victim Response Team has allowed the Prosecuting Attorney's Office's relationship with crime victims to change dramatically.
"Typically, we are working hand in hand with that family from the initial case filing, sometimes before the case has been filed, just to try to reach out, make contact, and try to assess the victims needs, beyond notification, and making sure they understand what their rights are," said Koch.
Joan and Spencer Turner experienced the Victim Response Team's outreach when Spencer's sister was murdered by their granddaughter's boyfriend in December of 2010. They say everyone at the prosecuting attorney's office was very proactive and helpful.
"I'm very pleased with Dan Knight and his staff, I think they have done an outstanding job keeping us informed and explaining, after the pleading of guilty, what our rights were and provided us with the paperwork we needed to fill out, which we did," said Spencer Turner.
That paperwork is what the victim advocates ensure victims fill out so they are registered with the Department of Corrections' Office of Victim Services, and can be as involved as they would like to be in the probation and parole process. The system seems to be working.
"We received a probation notice yesterday or the day before yesterday when he is going to be eligible for probation," said Spencer.
Koch said the victim advocates also focus on helping the victims with their emotional needs. "We try to meet with those family members because they are hurting, because they have need and questions. We try to meet with them as soon as we can face to face and try to gather all that information. And to set them up with counseling if they need it," he said.
Joan Turner found that information very helpful. "They gave us the name of POMA, which is Parents of Murdered Children, but they told us about a support group here in town that also works with any relatives of murder victims and we found that support group to be of immeasurable help," she said.
The new system works to keep mistakes like the one that affected the Hendrens from ever happening again. However, cases that predate the Missouri Crime Victims Rights Amendment may affect victims who are not registered with the DOC's Office of Victim's Services.
"There are likely other cases like the Hendrens' case that are out there. So hopefully, by telling their story, the DOC, our office, other offices can look at their own systems and look for ways to improve those systems so that something like this doesn't happen again," said Koch.
The prosecuting attorney's office stresses the importance of crime victims registering with the Department of Corrections' Office of Victim Services if they would like to be informed or involved. The registration form can be found here.