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Reverberations of the victim’s “voice”: Victim impact statements and the cultural project of punishment.

Sheley, Erin
June 4, 2015

Source: (2012) Indiana Law Journal. 87(3):1247-1286.

This article will proceed in four parts. Part I will summarize the legal history of
victim impact statements and the existing debate over their appropriateness in the
sentencing context. I will argue that much of the literature focuses on a tripartite
competition between victim, defendant, and state, which has the tendency to ignore
the capacity for a victim impact statement to externalize and convey the social
harm of a criminal act. In Part II, through textual analysis of how a group of actual
victim impact statements convey individual suffering to an institutional audience, I
will demonstrate the unique complexity of the harm they narrate. I will show that
while critics’ concerns over the capacity of subjective narratives to yield
undifferentiated antipathy and lapses into trope language of “victimhood” are in
fact justified by reality, other features allow these narratives to get at the nuanced
truth of suffered harm and its context in the social world protected by the criminal
justice system. The model that emerges from this analysis reveals a deep tension
between narrative authorities in the structure of victim impact testimony. On the
one hand, the victim has the potential to overcome the monopoly on narrative
previously held by the trial attorneys, as well as some of the signification problems
identified in the theoretical literature, to develop uniquely subjective accounts of
harm through some of the techniques I identify. On the other, the victims’ sheer consciousness of their own bodies and identities as potentially transformed by the
defendant, and the continuing consciousness of the court’s authority to assign
meaning to these transformations, has the tendency to subvert the victims’ authority
as subjective authors of their own experiences. (author’s abstract)


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