My phone call to Virginia Grossnickle was uneasily dialed. I was hesitant about stirring her grief. Mrs. Grossnickle, who lives in Frederick County and works for the Church of the Brethren in New Windsor is the mother of a murder victim. I wanted to learn her views about the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to strike down a 1983 Maryland law that allowed victim-impact statements in death-sentencing hearings.
Mrs. Grossnickle called the court's decision "a major blow to victim's rights. The pendulum has swung so far in favor of the defendants. We saw this time after time as we went through the judicial process. We felt it was important to share an impact statement with the jurors, but now the Supreme Court says that that's unconstitutional."
On Sept. 9, 1984, the brutally stabbed body of Joanne Grossnickle was found behind an industrial park in a Washington suburb. At 22, out of college for three months and working on women's rights issues in the Capitol Hill legislative office of the Church of the Brethren, Joanne Grossnickle was excited to be living and working in the city. At a memorial service at the family's church in Union Bridge, a minister described Joanne as "creative, sensitive and vivacious ... When she walked and talked she changed people."
Virginia Grossnickle remembers her daughter that way. She also recalls the trial of Rubin Jackson, the convicted murderer of her child. At sentencing time, Mrs. Grossnickle recalls, "He was allowed to speak to the jury, even though he was not under oath. He was free to say anything."
Virginia Grossnickle and her husband were permitted only to submit a written statement on the impact of Joanne's death. As members of the Church of the Brethren, one of the traditional peace churches, they were opposed to the death penalty for Jackson, which the state was seeking. The murderer, now in a state prison, was given a life sentence but with a chance of being paroled. The Grossnickles were opposed to the possibility of Jackson being freed one day.
Before phoning Virginia Grossnickle, I had thought that she might have supported the Supreme Court's decision, as I did. A newspaper story in September 1984 said that after the family received word of Joanne's death, "they prayed for the man charged with her murder." Neighbors said the family was "forgiving and strong."
Surely they were and are. Their experience with the courts, as well as the grief of losing a daughter in the first bloom of adulthood, has given them a perspective that outsiders can only imagine. "Until you've been in a situation like ours," Mrs. Grossnickle said in a second phone conversation, "you don't really have an understanding what it's like. Our lives were torn apart. Our lives can never be the same. We're serving a sentence of a kind, because every day we must remember what happened to Joanne."
After my conversations with Mrs. Grossnickle, I asked myself questions, ones that I probably would not have posed if it were only the opinions in the Supreme Court decision that I relied on. If one of my children had been murdered, how would I feel about being denied my turn before a jury? Would my opposition to the death penalty be as resolute as it is now? Would I be as generous and charitable in taking phone calls from the media as was Mrs. Grossnickle? Would I think victims are fairly treated by the courts, especially after this latest decision?
Those of us who are privileged to earn a living by taking sides on public policy debates forget too often that human beings are on the other side. We are aware of our own humanity but not always theirs. The they's and them's are anonymous, while the I's and we's are alive. I'm a person, they're a statistic.
It's impossible for me to say where I would come out on the Supreme Court decision -- on Mrs. Grossnickle's side or with the majority of five -- if I were among the families of murder victims. My sympathies have been, and are now, with those who have been victimized by criminals. Street criminals, corporate criminals, governmental criminals. With victims of war. Victims of medical malpractice. Victims of any violence.
Congress was right to sanction victim-impact statements in federal sentencings. Fair punishment demands it. But the court was also right to exclude the statements in death sentencing. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote of being "troubled by the implication that defendants whose victims were assets to their community are more deserving of punishment than those whose victims are perceived to be less worthy."
Under the Burger and now the Rehnquist court, the death penalty is already arbitrary. Any decrease in that arbitrariness is to the good. Making a victim of the victimizer through death is neither punishment nor justice. It's vengeance, cruel and unusual.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group