The 1991 Victims Rights Amendment to the New Jersey Constitution requires that crime victims "be treated with fairness, compassion and respect by the criminal justice system."
It's hard to argue with that - in theory. But some subsequent laws expanding victims' rights have been troubling because, to us, they can interfere with a defendant's right to a fair trial based on the facts and the evidence.
For example, last year Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that allows the families of murder victims to display photos of their loved ones in court during the trial. In our opinion, that can't help but arouse the emotions of a jury, which is supposed to do its work dispassionately.
But we have no problem with the law that has allowed crime victims, including the families of murder victims, to read victim-impact statements at sentencing after the trial. And last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in an unusual unanimous ruling, added a sensible new twist to victim-impact statements: Not only do victims have a right to read a statement at sentencing, but the defendant can be compelled to actually hear it.
This isn't an issue that comes up often. But Guiseppe Tedesco - who not only murdered 22-year-old Alyssa Ruggieri in Hopatcong three years ago but then mouthed an obscenity to each juror as they were being polled at his trial - decided he didn't want to be present at his sentencing. Tedesco shot Ruggieri six times because she wouldn't go to a party with him.
Defendants in New Jersey can waive their constitutional right to be present at sentencing - if the trial judge agrees. Tedesco, 27, appealed his case all the way to the state Supreme Court, where Ruggieri's mother, Michele, argued that her right to make a victims-impact statement would be "meaningless" if the defendant can choose not to attend the sentencing.
The court agreed in a ruling that is being hailed by victims-rights groups.
The decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, said the defendant's interest in skipping his sentencing "simply pales in comparison" with the state's interest in having the defendant "face those he has wronged."
We have to agree. Particularly, with a defendant like Tedesco, who in addition to cursing jurors also pushed and injured a corrections officer and threatened the victim's brother.
As we said, we do have problems with some expansions of victims' rights - but not this one.
Guiseppe Tedesco should hear every word Michele Ruggieri has to say about the impact of his crime on the Ruggieri family.