Payback Is a Hitch

A new bill may make it tougher for crime victims to receive compensation.

Linda Ramsey (right) and her daughter Amanda. - Rae Nester
Linda Ramsey (right) and her daughter Amanda.
It had been more than a year, and Brenda Robinson's heart still ached over the murder of her son.

Lundy Clepper was his mother's joy—a smiling, happy seventeen-year-old. On October 16, 1993, Lundy was visiting friends on Akron's west side when he walked out of a house and saw nineteen-year-old Jeffrey Cole playing with a gun.

"He pulled the trigger, but it didn't go off," Robinson says. "He pulled it a second time and shot my son in the chest."

As Lundy lay dying in the street, one of Lundy's friends removed his jacket and placed it over him.

Today, Robinson says she couldn't have gotten through the first year after Lundy's death if not for advocates from Akron's Victim Assistance Program. They supported her throughout the complicated court proceedings, including two trials, before Cole was convicted and sent to prison.

The advocates also referred her to Northfield attorney Sherri Bevan-Walsh, who helped her file a claim with the Ohio Victims of Crime Compensation Program.

Since 1976, the program has paid claims to thousands like Robinson through a court-based reparations system. But if a bill recently introduced into the Ohio Senate becomes law, crime victims and their families may find it more difficult to receive needed help.

The program, run by the Ohio Court of Claims under the Ohio Supreme Court, reimburses crime victims for certain expenses, such as lost wages, funerals, and medical bills. A recommendation approving or denying all or part of a claim is made to the court by the Ohio attorney general's office. A system of checks and balances is in place, so there is recourse if a denial is made based on inaccurate information.

On Christmas Eve, 1994, a little over a year after her son's death, Brenda Robinson opened a letter from the attorney general's office and burst into tears. Her claim was denied, the letter said, because her son had been involved in illegal drug activity at the time of his death.

"My son didn't do drugs," Robinson insisted.

Bevan-Walsh, who had received a copy of the letter, phoned Robinson. "I told her it was a mistake and not to worry," she says.

In a pocket of the jacket that Lundy's friend had carefully placed over him, there was a rock of crack cocaine. The jacket originally was logged into the police department's evidence room as belonging to Lundy.

Bevan-Walsh had given the attorney general's investigator the telephone numbers of the police officer and county prosecutor who were familiar with the case, but neither was contacted before the recommendation was issued. Because of the checks and balances, Bevan-Walsh was able to provide documentation by mail to a Court of Claims commissioner, who then allowed the claim.

Robinson's claim was one of about 4,000 filed annually to the court-run program. Last year, Cuyahoga County accounted for nearly one-fourth of those claims. For all of Ohio, the fund paid nearly $11 million to victims while spending nearly $8 million for administrative costs in fiscal year 1998.

Senate Bill 153, proposed by Ohio State Senator Robert F. Spada, R-24th District, at the behest of Attorney General Betty Montgomery, would transfer the administration of the Victims of Crime Compensation Program from the Court of Claims to the attorney general's office.

Chris Davey, director of public affairs for Betty Montgomery, says the proposed changes are designed to simplify the system and speed up the process. "We're consolidating the investigation and award process by making the attorney general the fact-finder," Davey says. "There still would be an appeals process available for people who think they should have gotten a different decision."

Bevan-Walsh and other attorneys who represent crime victims think that some of the proposals—including expanding mental health services to immediate family members—are good. But attorneys say a couple of the proposals are troubling.

Attorney Mike Falleur, who worked at the Court of Claims before opening his Columbus practice, thinks it's dangerous to make the attorney general's office the prosecutor and judge on a victim's claim. He says there are mistakes in at least half of the recommendations his clients have received from that office.

But, he says, between the attorney general's office and the Court of Claims, the final decisions are usually accurate.

"If I could ask one question," Falleur says, "I would ask the attorney general or other higher-ups in that office what they really want to accomplish with this. Ohio is really one of the elite programs. Tweak it, don't tear it down."

Cleveland attorney Michael Downing, who also started his law career at the Court of Claims, says it would be okay for the attorney general's office to make the final decision on obvious claims.

In more complicated cases, an attorney can ease a victim's burden by acting as a liaison. But if the new law passes, victims who need representation would be unable to find it, attorneys say. The handful of Ohio lawyers who handle claims now make $60 per hour or a maximum of $1,320. The proposed bill would cap attorney fees at $300 or 25 percent of the award, whichever is lower.

The attorney general's office calls the lawyers' objections sour grapes.

"This program is not about attorneys," Davey says. "This program is about helping crime victims. The attorney general wants a system that is simpler, and if it can work by citizens accessing their government without attorneys, so much the better."

Falleur says no attorney gets rich off handling victim claims. As it stands, only about 40 percent of the claims filed last year were filed by attorneys. And most Ohio bar associations have no one on their referral lists to handle victims' claims.

Linda Ramsey, whose fourteen-year-old daughter Amanda was molested by her uncle, says she could not have gone through the reparation process without the help of an attorney.

"Sometimes the attorney general's investigators asked for documents they already had," she says. "Even after we filed things once or twice, they would ask again. There's so much red tape to the claims process."

According to Davey, the proposed bill is what Montgomery wants to see signed into law, but Spada wants to hear suggestions from victims, lawyers, or anyone else who has an idea for improving the system. He has invited Bevan-Walsh to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 30, and he is extending the invitation to anyone who is interested.

"My intention is to make this a better program," he says.

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