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A victim impact statement is a written account of how a victim, their family members or friends have been impacted by the actions of a perpetrator. Not only relegated to domestic violence crimes, victim impact statements can be submitted by the victim of any offense. They are given to a judge often at or before the sentencing of a defendant. Though not required, they are a right that victims can exercise if they so choose to. The impact statement can be the first time the judge hears the victim’s side in their own words, or through the words of a loved one.
Victim impact statements can also be the first time a survivor or their loved ones may address the perpetrator directly if they feel comfortable doing so. We saw a powerful example of this in the 2018 trial of Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for the USA Gymnastics team who sexually abused at least 265 girls and women over the span of his career. An astounding 204 women stood up at his trial to read victim impact statements aloud. One by one, these survivors bravely faced the court and Nassar himself to share how his actions had affected their lives.
Kyle Stephens was only 6 years old when Nassar began to abuse her. She read her powerful statement to Nassar directly.
"You used my body for six years for your own sexual gratification. That is unforgivable. Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world."
How to Write a Strong Victim Impact Statement
Former attorney and current domestic violence advocate Barry Goldstein says victim impact statements can be a powerful tool to make a survivor heard.
“[During the] victim’s rights movement this was one of the things that was implemented. It can be a factor in determining a defendant’s sentence,” explains Goldstein.
“In the case of domestic violence,” he says, “It can be dangerous to read it in front of an abuser, but sometimes, they [the survivor] do want the abuser to know what they did.” While many people could know an abuser from the persona they display in public, it may be very different from how he acted behind closed doors.
“Many court professionals fail to realize this, and that’s a piece of context to definitely include,” says Goldstein.
Questions to Ask Before Writing a Victim Impact Statement
Advocates suggest domestic violence survivors or support persons ask themselves the following questions before beginning to write a victim impact statement. These questions can help the writer figure out what they want to say to a judge and how they want to say it.
- What kind of emotional impact has the crime had on you?
- How has your ability to relate to other people changed as a result of this?
- What specific injuries are you suffering due to the crime?
- What kind of financial impact has the crime had on you? Did you have to miss work, move or are you facing substantial hospital or therapy bills?
- How long do you expect to receive treatment as a result of this crime?
- How else has your life or your family’s life changed as a result of this criminal’s actions?
- If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, talk a little about victim and what kind of person he or she was. What kind of relationship did you have with them?
Advocates warn not to put personal information into the statement, like your address, phone number, email address, place of employment or where your children go to school. The offender will be able to view a copy of this statement.
Writing a Statement After Her Sister’s Murder
Tene Goodwin wrote a victim impact statement after her younger sister, Taitu Goodwin, was murdered in 2019 by an ex-boyfriend.
“She was a victim of domestic violence during the relationship. When she ended it, he broke into her house and killed her,” Tene says.
The sisters were very close. “My life was essentially destroyed and also the same for my family,” Tene says.
In her statement, Tene described how her sister’s life was just beginning, how she had recently graduated with a master’s degree in law and international trade and started a new career just six months prior. She had a family who loved her, especially her young nephew and nieces. She wrote how it was all taken away just three months after her sister’s 27th birthday by a jealous, hateful ex-boyfriend who refused to let her end a relationship and murdered her instead.
Tene says she suffered severe panic attacks in the aftermath of her sister’s murder. She couldn’t be around people she didn’t know, especially men. She couldn’t go to work or barely even leave the house. The rest of her family was just as traumatized.
She says getting it down on paper was therapeutic.
“Before I wrote the statement, any time I had a panic attack or felt on the brink of despair, I felt extreme guilt because I thought, ‘I wasn't the one murdered. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.' But after writing down the impact of her murder on me I realized the way I felt was valid,” says Tene.
Ultimately, Tene decided not to submit the victim impact statement.
“Testifying was its own traumatic event and afterward, in my emotional exhaustion, I just .. I didn’t have the energy. But more importantly, I felt like the act of writing it was what gave me the courage to be able to testify and so it had served its purpose.”
She hopes other survivors find the courage to write their own victim impact statements.
“There's so much silence around domestic violence crimes and I think it’s [victim impact statements] a way to regain strength by using your voice to speak up about what was done to you. Oftentimes there's a lot of gaslighting in domestic violence, so for victims to be able to assert their experience and the impact on them can be pivotal to their healing.”
Victim Impact Statements Don’t Guarantee Harsher Sentences
Stephanie wrote a victim impact statement after being the survivor of an armed robbery.
“A friend and I were robbed by a stranger coming out of a Subway. We were held at gunpoint but managed to run away in two different directions. My friend slipped on ice, the gunman caught up to him, pointed the gun into his abdomen and said he'd shoot him if I didn't return.”
Stephanie went back to the robber who put the gun to her head. He forced Stephanie and her friend to walk to an abandoned house where he said he was going to kill them, but they were able to run away. The robber fired his gun, but Stephanie and her friend escaped unharmed.
She chose to write a victim impact statement but says it didn’t have the effect she hoped for.
“Words didn't hold a candle to what had happened in my body. I thought my testimony should be sufficient because I covered a lot of the same territory in both… I tried to share the impact of what had happened but, so soon after the incident, I was still in shock and couldn't even process it.”
Stephanie felt like her statement didn’t make a big difference in sentencing.
“The judge didn't even sentence him to required minimums, somehow. He should have gotten at least 25 years and got seven.”
Goldstein says that whether the victim impact statement affects sentencing “very much depends on the judge.”
“Sometimes they read them and sometimes they don’t,” he acknowledges. This means that survivors who chose to write them should know this going in. Is the potential retraumatization of reading the statement out loud worth it?
Justice can look different to different survivors. A victim impact statement may be a part of that, or it may not. Read, “What Does Justice Look Like for Abuse Survivors?” for more information.
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