Bill Protects Crime Victims from Lawsuits

By: Lisa Ferrari
By: Lisa Ferrari

January 31, 2006

Prosecutors often rely on crime victims to provide eyewitness testimony in order to put criminals behind bars but sometimes those victims make mistakes.

A bill one of our local delegates has proposed would protect those eyewitnesses from being sued if they make a mistake.

Delegate Rob Bell says he authored the bill in response to a recent lawsuit filed in Charlottesville and the lawyer who filed the suit is saying the bill is unnecessary.

"I am amazed that there would be a bill to make law that which is already law in Virginia," said Attorney Debbie Wyatt.

Wyatt says current laws already protect eye witnesses who make identifications in 'good faith.' Bell says his bill would go one step further and give crime victims "immunity" for testimony and i.d.s provided in 'good faith'. Prosecutors say it could give victims some reassurance.

"There are a lot of disincentives for them to come forward and cooperate with investigations about what they've seen. They're scared for their safety. They're nervous about it. Now on top of that, they may be worried about getting sued [if they happen to make a mistake]. If the bill is going to make it easier--give people a comfort level when they come forward, then it’s a good thing," said Former Assistant US Attorney Tim Heaphy.

Bell filed the bill in response to a lawsuit filed by Wyatt. Wyatt's client Christopher Matthew is suing a woman who falsely identified him as the man who raped her. Wyatt says the bill, if passed, would have no impact on her lawsuit.

"She originally first reported there was no rape. Our allegations are that there was no rape. If there was something else, there was something else, but to say there was a rape if its false would not exactly constitute 'good faith,'" said Wyatt.

In court, Wyatt says she will prove that the victim acted with malice. While bill 1559 would protect victims who make a mistake, it would not shield anyone who intentionally lies about a crime.

The rape victim's attorney and the commonwealth attorney were not available for comment but have said that this victim simply made an honest mistake and should not be punished for it.

The bill unanimously passed a house sub-committee yesterday.

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