This story, which I originally wrote for my news writing class, was just published on a local news website.
The new Maricopa County Court Tower will be designed to safeguard the rights of crime victims.
The 16-story tower located at the corner of First Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Phoenix is slated for a Feb. 2012 opening.
Criminal court administrator Bob James said separation of defendants and victims is a key design feature of the new building.
“We have provided spaces that are private for the use of victims,” James said. “If a person is uncomfortable with being in the courtroom, they can be in
an adjacent victims’ room where they can watch all the proceedings.”
He said this separation is important in areas people might not think about.
“Victims told us that sometimes they feel apprehensive when they have to use the bathroom,” James said. “The nearest restroom may be where the defendant
or his or her family goes.”
He said the victims’ rooms address this concern by providing separate restroom facilities.
James said every effort has been taken to maintain separation when victims must appear in open court.
“If the prosecutors decide the victim needs to testify, they would actually need to come into the courtroom,” James said. “But, even then, we’ve created
an entrance separate from the gallery or the one used by defendants.”
James said security is critical in a courthouse that will also hold defendants whose cases are coming up for trial.
“One of the lower levels will be a holding facility for the Sharif’s department,” James said. “They will have the holding capacity for up to 1,400 defendants.
so the only time the traffic flow of the in-custody defendants meets with the judges, staff and the public is in the courtroom itself.”
Special Court Counsel Jessica Funkhouser said the need for separation of defendants from victims goes beyond comfort and safety.
“Victims are regularly cautioned by judges and prosecutors to avoid showing their emotions in the courtroom so as not to cause a mistrial,” Funkhouser said.
“They can retreat to the victims’ room and watch the trial on a video monitor without having to worry about the jury or anyone else in the courtroom seeing
Criminal defense attorney Michael V. Black said he has reservations about the preferential treatment of crime victims in the courthouse.
“There’s a whole lot of types of victims and they’re just another witness,” Black said. “I don’t see why they should be given any more consideration than
an ordinary witness in a particular case. If they treated everyone the same, that would be fine with me.”
He said he would be concerned if it turns out a courthouse designed to protect victims interfered with a defendant’s constitutional right to face their
“The Supreme Court said the victim has to be there (in court) and they have to testify in front of the defendant and have to be cross-examined in front
of them, so they can’t do anything to interfere with that,” Black said. “If the courtroom impedes on that, it will not pass constitutional muster.”
Funkhouser said separating defendants and their families from victims and their families benefits everyone.
“You’ve seen videos where fights break out in courtrooms where the families of defendants and victims jump over the rails and attack each other,” she said.
“The whole idea is that a courthouse that’s safe for victims is going to be safer for everybody.”
Funkhouser said the design of the new court tower has been carried out in direct compliance with Arizona’s constitution and legislation addressing the need
to minimize contact between defendants and victims.
“I don’t know of any other court buildings in the United States that have gone to this extent,” Funkhouser said. “Arizona is the first state to have a victims’
bill of rights amendment. So I think this courthouse is the most innovative in terms of addressing victims’ needs and their rights.”
Guest article contributed by Darrell Shandrow and Jordan Moon, Students
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication