Adults in their Sunday best, teenagers in sweat shirts, law enforcement officers in dress uniform and elected officials in dark business suits filled the sanctuary at the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church on Sunday to share stories, offer support and rally for rights of crime victims.
Launching National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the gathering was the first in a series of local events that will include a rose garden remembrance, a memorial brick dedication ceremony and Take Back the Night walk. The church was the setting for the ninth annual Candlelight Vigil for Victims of Crimes. Color photos lining the altar showed men, women and children who were the victims of assault, homicide, domestic violence, elder abuse, burglary and child abuse or neglect.
“We want everyone here to take a look at how crime affects people, because you can never stop listening and learning,” Sara Martin, co-president of the Capital District Coalition for Crime Victims’ Rights, said as more than 100 people filed into the church. “There’s not a single person out there whose life hasn’t been changed by crime, whether it happened to them personally or someone they know. I’ve worked for crime victims for 15 years, and I still haven’t truly walked in their shoes.”
Against the backdrop of harp music, people filled the pews, most sitting quietly. Despite their varied attire, everyone had pale green ribbons pinned over their hearts emblazoned with gold letters, “National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.”
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III presented plaques to the 2008 Public Service Awards recognizing those with a deep commitment to advocacy for victims. One award went to Jonathan Mueller, who is a DWI accident survivor. Now physically and cognitively impaired, Mueller was riding in a car with his college friends from SUNY Cobleskill to pick up Chinese food for dinner nine years ago when their vehicle was struck by a drunken driver.
Mueller suffered a traumatic brain injury and remained in a coma for months.
“I had to learn to walk, talk, swallow and write all over again,” Mueller said. “My memory was badly affected. In the morning, I have to feel my towel to see if I’ve taken a shower yet. Thirty minutes from now, I won’t remember I ever stood here and spoke to you.”
Other awards were given to Doug and Mary Lyall of Ballston Spa, founders of the Center for HOPE and parents of missing daughter Suzanne Lyall, and Patricia Donovan, senior investigator for the state police bureau in Clifton Park.
Murphy addressed the audience, reassuring family members his office would continue to strongly represent the local people who are among the 23 million Americans victimized by crime every year.
“The last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance are, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ ” Murphy said. “We say it all the time; Americans believe in these words. In the criminal justice system, sometimes we see a defendant’s rights are skewed compared to victims’ rights. The system isn’t perfect, but we have to work within it.”
Murphy said he lobbies actively to have victims and their families face the defendant in court and give testimony to their altered lives.
“Today is a time for renewal, commitment, a beginning,” Murphy said. “We need to think every day about this issue and consider the life-changing impact on lives like those gathered here. This is the only way we can bring about change.”
As part of the ceremony, a white paper scroll with names of more than 400 crime victims written in script was unrolled down the main aisle of the sanctuary. Once unrolled, the paper stretched all the way to the entry door to the worship room.
Outside in the lobby, 14-year-old Liza Miller handed out dark blue rubber bracelets stamped with the Web site address of the victims’ rights group.
“My mother works for the domestic violence cause, but she didn’t have to ask me to help out,” Miller said. “I’m here because I care.”
For a list of National Crime Victims’ Rights events this week, log onto www.crimevictim.org.