Michigan House: Defendants must listen to victim statements

Defendants in Michigan would be compelled to listen to victim impact statements under legislation that moved through the House Thursday.

The House passed the bill 105-2 in honor of the late Rebekah Bletsch, a 36-year-old who was murdered in 2014 while jogging on a western Michigan road. In December, Bletsch’s convicted killer, Jeffrey Willis, spurred outrage for walking out during her family’s victim impact statements — before blowing a kiss and making an obscene hand gesture.

Bletsch’s loved ones, who are also constituents of bill sponsor Rep. Holly Hughes, were forced to watch Willis depart the courtroom after the judge granted his request to leave.

Michigan law currently does not require the defendant to be physically present during victim impact statements.

“It’s just not right to have a monster convicted of murder be able to leave the room and then inflict another atrocity,” said the Republican Hughes.

Jessica Josephson was one of Bletsch’s sisters who was unable to confront Willis with her victim impact statement. But on Thursday, she said she felt appreciative that Michigan may soon change the law.

“Nobody should have to go through what we went through,” Josephson said. “If we can prevent that, so be it.”

Another attempt to dodge victim statements occurred in January, when convicted child molester and ex-sports doctor Larry Nassar was set to be sentenced. Nassar wrote in a letter to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina that he wasn’t mentally strong enough to withstand hearing the testimonies.

But Aquilina literally tossed his letter aside, opening up what amounted to more than 120 victims describing their experiences over five days.

Thursday’s bill now moves to the Senate. Hughes said she hopes the proposal will become law before Willis returns to court, as he is also charged with the murder of 25-year-old Jessica Heeringa.

“I’m pleased it’s moving along so quick,” said Bletsch’s mother, Debra Reamer. “It should have never been allowed.”

The sole exception to the proposed law is during the presence of disruptive or threatening conduct. Opponents are unsure about the exception, speculating whether defendants will be incentivized to misbehave in the future in order to be waved outside.  (AP)

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