Victims’ Rights Act update sponsored by state Sen. Fields would allow victims to attend hearings remotely post-pandemic

State Sen. Rhonda Fields in 2020. Sentinel Colorado file photo

AURORA | One of the hardest things that state Sen. Rhonda Fields sat through during the trial of her son’s murderers is listening to the tape of the 911 call from the neighbor who found his body.

“The piercing of her voice and her plea for help and describing what she saw and she heard left a lasting impression on me,” Fields said.

Fields’ son, Javad Marshall Fields, was shot and killed along with his fiancee Vivian Wolfe in 2005 as retaliation for agreeing to serve as a witness in the trial of his best friend’s murder. His death spurred Fields’s entrance into politics and in 2010 she was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, and then in 2017 to the state senate.

From under the gold dome, Fields has continued to be an advocate for victim’s rights, and this legislative session is co-sponsoring an update to Colorado’s Victim’s Rights Act. The bill passed in the Senate and is currently under consideration in the House.

“This gives the victims the right to be heard, to be present and to be informed,” Fields told The Sentinel. “And all of that is the responsibility of the prosecution.”

If passed, Senate Bill 49 would update the act to allow victims to attend court proceedings remotely in perpetuity, something that began during the pandemic as a significant portion of the state’s legal proceedings were moved online. That’s important because court cases can drag on for years, Fields said, and if the victim has moved away, or even out of state in the meantime, they can incur significant expenses.

The update would also require the defendant to be present during the reading of the victim impact statement, a statement that the victim (or their family, in murder trials) has the opportunity to read to the judge at the end of a court case about the ways the crime has affected them.

In a statement, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said that the bill is “a meaningful update to the rights guaranteed in our laws to support victims, and I’m proud to support this bipartisan bill.”

“As attorney general, I’m committed to enforcing the Colorado Victims Rights Act and ensuring our criminal justice process protects, supports, and respects all crime victims,” he said.

Other updates include requiring the victim to receive translation or interpretation services if necessary, guaranteeing that victims have a right to attend parole board hearings and ensuring that prosecutors explain defendant’s sentencing terms.

Sentencing can be complicated for victims because prison terms can be reduced for good behavior and other factors, Fields said, leaving some people to be upset if a perpetrator is released earlier than they were led to believe.

This update guarantees “a level of information sharing in reference to, that that sentence doesn’t mean they’re going to serve all that time,” Fields said.

Fields’ co-sponsor is Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, and the bill has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers, which is important to her.

“Because when you’re a victim you don’t get a chance to declare what party affiliation you’re from,” she said. “Nobody raises their hand and says ‘I want to be a victim today.’”

Similar to State Rep. Tom Sullivan (D-Centennial), who entered politics after his son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Fields has a unique perspective as both a politician and someone who has experienced the legal system as the loved one of a murder victim.

It has left her slightly out of step at times as the Colorado Democratic Party has moved gradually to the left on criminal justice issues over the years. Two of the three men on Colorado’s death row were her son’s murderers (Gov. Polis commuted their sentence to life in prison without parole), and Fields was opposed to the 2020 repeal of the death penalty.

At the same time, she has lobbied for community-wide approaches to addressing crime, as more and more Aurora politicians and law enforcement officers begin to voice the sentiment that certain issues — such as youth gun violence — can’t simply be arrested out of existence. Her ethos in both causes includes making sure that the voices of people being most affected are being heard.

“In most cases I may not know what’s going on in Grand Junction, or in other communities,” she said. “But there are people in those communities that know the best way to address crime and public safety. We need to listen to their voices.”