It takes two to tango, goes the famous saying, and despite what 70s sitcoms try to tell you, three is most definitely a crowd. This is even more so in the criminal justice system, where there are two parties to every prosecution: the individual accused and the rest of the citizenry, on whose behalf the accusations are made.
But in recent years there has been a move – and to some extent rightfully so – toward giving the individual victim more input and a greater voice in the process. But the basic structure has – and should – remain the same: State v. defendant. In a sense, it is the State as a whole that has been victimized; the collective peace, law and order. Our laws, which are rules we have agreed to in order to maintain a semblance of morality and structure, are designed to protect the orderly functioning of society. We give up certain rights in order to have others.
So it’s good to see a court even as conservative as Connecticut’s top court acknowledge and reaffirm this. Today, in State v. Gault, the CT Supreme Court held that a victim is not a party to a criminal case.
It is a ‘‘basic tenet of the criminal justice system that prosecutions are undertaken and punishments are sought by the state on behalf of the citizens of the state, and not on behalf of particular victims or complaining witnesses.’’ State v. Barnett, 980 S.W.2d 297, 308 (Mo. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1161, 119 S. Ct. 1074, 143 L. Ed. 2d 77 (1999). ‘‘A criminal prosecution is a public matter and not a contest between the defendant and his victims, or their relatives.’’(Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. It is axiomatic, therefore, that ‘‘[t]he parties to a criminal action are the [state], in whose sovereign name it is prosecuted, and the person accused’’; Dix v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 3d 442, 451, 807 P.2d 1063, 279 Cal. Rptr. 834 (1991); and not the crime victim(s). State v. Harrison, 24 P.3d 936, 945 (Utah 2001).
It is important to note that while the decision, viewed most simplistically, is a ruling against a victim in a privacy case, there are broader, more important implications here. It is a ruling for due process and the rights of a defendant and that of society as a whole to have an orderly determination of the matter of guilt or innocence of one of its citizens. That the victim in this case was raped or kidnapped is irrelevant to the story. She might as well have been a he and he might as well have been defrauded out of $1,000,000.
The very thing that the victim in Gault sought to do was considered and rejected by the legislature in 2007, for much the same reasons that the supreme court rejected it today. To permit to enter into the fray a third party, whose interests are already ostensibly represented by an existing one, but not tempered or checked in any way by concerns of judicial economy, fairness, due process and – sometimes – justice, would be to take an already chaotic system plagued by allegations of disparity and unfairness and turn it into even more of a quagmire.