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Victims' Advocates Chart New Course in Courtroom in Cases of Violent Crime

March 15, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Opportunity came knocking for Judith Rowland on Jan. 27, when Craig Alan Peyer, accused of murder, stood before Municipal Court Judge Herbert Exharos and asked that his bail be reduced from $500,000 to $300,000.

Rowland, 43, a former prosecutor who co-founded the California Center on Victimology in 1984, made sure that she was there, too. After a private discussion with Exharos, Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Van Orshoven and defense attor ney Robert Grimes, Rowland was allowed the rare opportunity to speak in court on behalf of the family of strangling victim Cara Evelyn Knott. She requested that Peyer's bail be denied.

The unusual inclusion of a third-party "victim's advocate" at an early stage of a highly publicized murder trial has drawn the notice of two interest groups that watch judicial proceedings very carefully: the defense lawyers who make their living in the courtroom, and the increasingly powerful members of the victims' rights movement, which is trying to change the rules of the criminal justice system.

It also has focused some of the attention received by Peyer--a 13-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol who is accused of killing Knott on Dec. 27--on Rowland, one of the cause's most aggressive national leaders.

To her supporters, Rowland was simply doing what she does best: wading into uncharted legal waters in an attempt to expand the growing list of courtroom prerogatives open to victims of violent crimes.

"We are blessed by people like Judy . . . who are willing to push, who are willing to be there at critical moments and challenge the status quo," said Gene Patterson, executive director of the Fort Worth-based Sunny Von Bulow National Victim Advocacy Center, one of about 4,200 organizations concerned with victims' rights.

But, to her critics, especially defense lawyers, Rowland was hotdogging again, trying to fix a legal system that wasn't broken and stack the deck against defendants. Those who privately question Rowland's legal skills were buoyed when Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman later ruled that she should not have been allowed to speak at the bail hearing.

"The only function that someone like Judy Rowland (serves) is to inflame the passions of the judge and the public by the kind of press she gets," said Elisabeth Semel, a defense attorney. "But she has absolutely no knowledge that is relevant to the issue.

"The questions that are properly before the court in evaluating the issue of bail do not concern the kinds of matters that Judy Rowland wishes to bring to the court. It's not proper. It's not lawful."

Rowland said she was not hunting media attention in her unusual appearance at Peyer's bail hearing, a claim some of her critics doubt in light of the fact that the victimology center suffered well-publicized money problems last year.

"It didn't occur to me that it was going to get this much publicity because I had done it before" in a much less-publicized murder case last year, Rowland said. "It never hit me that it was going to generate this much attention."

Whatever the truth, there is no denying that, in three short years, Rowland has helped to make victims' rights and services a well-recognized concept here and has become an integral part of the growing nationwide movement.

After nine years in the San Diego County district attorney's office, Rowland quit to write "The Ultimate Violation," which detailed her pioneering emphasis on the effect of "rape trauma syndrome" on victims in successfully prosecuting rape cases.

Her interest in rape victims led her to co-found the San Diego-based California Center on Victimology, which provides counseling and free legal assistance to victims of violent crimes. Advocates also accompany victims to court and attempt to teach the media to show greater sensitivity to crime victims in times of trauma.

The center's legal clinic is one of only three in the nation offering the services of lawyers who help victims track cases through the complex legal system and fill out compensation claims.

Last year, Rowland sponsored a bill in the Legislature seeking to have California fund similar legal clinics in other parts of the state. The bill was approved by the Assembly but failed in the Senate.

She has also written a friend-of-the-court brief in a Maryland case that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case tests the right of victims to offer "impact statements" before defendants are sentenced, a right now available to victims in 43 states.

Rowland also lectures to victims' groups about their legal rights and how to expand them.

"I became aware that there was a place for lawyers in the victim rights movement as I went along," she said. "So it wasn't something that I had planned, plotted, knew where I was going and set out to do it. I kind of stumbled into it."

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