Victims' rights in an adversary system

The victims’ rights movement argues that because the outcome of criminal prosecutions affects crime victims, the justice system should consider their interests during proceedings. In 2004, Congress passed the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), giving victims some rights to participate in the federal criminal justice system. This Note probes both the theoretical assumptions and practical implications of the CVRA. It demonstrates that the victims’ rights movement revisits a long-acknowledged tension between adversary adjudication and third-party interests. It shows, however, that American law has resolved this tension by conferring party or quasi-party status on third parties. Despite some pro-victims rhetoric, Congress reaffirmed the public-prosecution model when it passed the CVRA. Instead of making victims parties or intervenors in criminal prosecutions, the CVRA asks courts and prosecutors to vindicate victims’ interests. This unusual posture creates substantial conflicts for courts and prosecutors and undermines defendants’ rights. To avoid these consequences, this Note argues, courts can interpret the CVRA’s substantive rights narrowly. Rather than reading the CVRA as conferring broad rights on crime victims, courts should interpret the statute to simply require institutional courtesy toward crime victims. This interpretation reflects victims’ nonparty status and preserves the rights and responsibilities of courts, prosecutors, and defendants.
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