An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Collene Campbell
Interview Transcript

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Interview Transcript

timecode Seymour: Collene, the field of victims rights when you first got involved, can you describe what the field was like and also, if you will, the context of the era and tell us the year, or years.

timecode Collene: Being a police officer's daughter, you know, I thought the justice system worked. I had no idea that it didn't. And in 1982 when our only son was strangled and thrown out of an airplane and we spent eleven months trying to find out what happened to him, during that period of time, I started to get a feeling that something wasn't right. And this went on for quite a long time. The men were finally apprehended that had had killed him, that happened to be our best friend's son, which was very painful and I still worry about them, but we never found his body. But when we finally got into the justice system and what happened as far as anybody giving any thought to our feeling or to the fact that the parents would know more about their son than anybody else, it was eliminated. We had to sit through three trials. We were before sixteen different judges and during the three trials my husband and I were thrown out of the courtroom. So now we have a body that wasn't found, our son's body, and the mom and dad not allowed to be in the courtroom.

timecode And of course the defense attorney said they were going to use us as a witness and anybody with an I.Q. at all understands they had no intentions of it. It was their way of elim... eliminating us from the courtroom. It was very difficult because the trials at the time in California were tremendously long, but we set up out... outside of the courtroom every single day and we stayed there the whole time. And we had some good friends that sat inside and tried to tell us what was going on in the courtroom. But it was interesting to note at the third trial that the defendant, who had already been convicted once before and the case had been overturned, was going up to testify. He would be the last person to testify. So I asked the prosecutor to ask the judge if I could come in. It was obvious at that time, of course, I was not going to be used as a witness. We went in the courtroom and when, I'll call him the "killer" because he was, started then testifying, I was able to ascertain that he was lying and I had proof of that.

timecode So had I not been sitting in that courtroom, the... the... the prosecution may, may have come out differently. So not only was it the right of a mom and dad to be there if all the... if all the killer's family was in there, but it was also an opportunity that maybe that we could help with the trial, which we did. So as we're moving through with victims' rights, it, you know, any bright law enforcement officer should know that the family member in most cases has a tremendous amount of information and should not be eliminated from the courtroom. Before the third trial was over my brother, Nicky Thompson, the auto racer, and his wife Trudy, who... who was my bestest friend ever, they were also murdered. So now we're going through the trial for Scotty, our son's murder, and facing Nicky's and Trudy's murders also of which my husband and I were the executor of estates and he had a lot of businesses and lot of business dealings.

timecode And it was a tremendous grind, but again we were not informed. In fact, when the defendant's, the killer's trial, was turned over to the District Court of Appeals, it was very interesting that they didn't notify us that the hearing was going to take place. The killer had forty members of his family in the courtroom and we had no notification and no one was there. We read it in the paper the next morning, but not only had the case been overturned, but he was back on the street again. This is a man that was being tried for the death penalty, a special circumstance case with several special circumstances and not entitled to bail, but he was back out on the streets again. So we had to go back through that trial again after Nicky and Trudy were killed. Then we started the long process of, Nicky and Trudy's, trying to apprehend the men who killed Nicky and Trudy and again you're basically cut out of the system.

timecode And I feel that a close family knows an awful lot about their family members. Not only are you in pain, but you have tremendous amount of information. I feel that law enforcement prosecutors certainly should utilize family members. But going to the family members, to the victims, they needed to take a look at a training film and learn how to be a victim. None of us are prepared to be victims 'cause we can be a real pain in the tuckus to the law enforcement and certainly how you act in the courtroom. There's films out on that to try to help victims know how to do that. And I understand why law enforcement kind of keeps their distance from them because we're not trained to do that.

timecode Seymour: Can I ask you something about the context of the era that is a little puzzling to me? 1982 is when your son was murdered. 1982 is when California passed a victims bill of rights. And so-- which said that you had the right to quite a few things that you and Gary did not receive. Could you address that context of the era?

timecode Collene: Well, unfortunately when I walked into the system, I didn't know anything about a Bill of Rights. I didn't know I had any, but as time went on and in that system and, I was devastated at the treatment our family received as far as trying to be helpful. I mean we were, more than anyone else, we want a prosecution of the person who killed our family and we wanted to make sure that it's accurate and it's right and they have every bit information we want. But as it went along I started griping to my brother, Nicky Thompson, about the system. "It's awful, Nicky. I didn't know it was so bad," and you know, yah, yah, yah. The things that you would do when you're terribly upset and, you know, part of the time you can't find your son who, you don't know what's happened and everything. But my brother said to me as only my brother, Nicky, would say, he says, "Sis, if you don't like the system, change it." And I said, "Nick, I'd have to change the California constitution." And he says, "Then do it and quit griping."

timecode Thus became the long ordeal that the California, when we did the most sweeping justice reform in U.S. history, which became Prop 115, giving victims many more rights. However, at the state level it seems like it's a little bit ignored if it, no, it's more than a little bit ignored. If it's not locked federal and of course that's why I'm pushing really hard for a U.S. Constitutional Amendment to give victims the rights that equal to the criminal is all I'm asking for is for the honest law-abiding citizen to have, just becomes a victim through no fault of their own to have the same rights as the criminal.

timecode Seymour: So what you're saying, and I'm really probing on this, 'cause it's fascinating. On Prop 115, Collene, that, if a victim's rights are violated, there's really not a whole lot that can happen? Is that what your saying?

timecode Collene: Well, let's put it this way. It, there doesn't seem to be the recourse it should. In fact I was told just the other day that I would be kept out of the courtroom during my brother's trial and I informed them, "No, I would not be kept out of the courtroom." Now I don't know whether I can back up that statement or not, but if it was in the U.S. Constitution and I had the same right as the criminal to be there, I could be in that courtroom. And do I want to be in the courtroom? Do I want to hear how my brother was killed? Do I want to hear the defense attorney take off on my family who I'm so proud of their integrity? No, I don't, but it's my duty as a loyal sister. And it's every victim's right to do what their heart tell them to do.

timecode Seymour: Collene, in your pioneering areas looking at, I think the policy changes, but also I think you've energized a lot of people in California in the victims' area. What do you think is the greatest challenge that you and your colleagues and other victim survivors have faced?

timecode Collene: You know, I think courage has been one of the greatest problems. When you're knocked down, when you're waiting for somebody else's help through the legal system, law enforcement and prosecution, you're sitting back because you know that you don't know everything that you should. So it's the courage to move forward and I want to tell you there's a lot of fear in that. But, you know, courage is not the lack of fear. Courage is the reason to move forward through that fear. And we have fear. I'm always afraid I'm gonna do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing. And, you know, I stay totally away from the case as far as I can, but I have information that needs to be out there. So, courage I think is one of the hardest things to come up with. I think speaking out, a voice, and it's time for the honest law-abiding citizen to speak up. This is not okay that everything's being spent on the criminal. It's not okay. And, you know, you take the terrible tragedy, the September the 11th, it was absolutely awful and I think we ought to do all the things the president's talking about.

timecode But do you know every ten weeks that many people are murdered in the United States. And, you know, what are we doing? We've gotta do more.

timecode Seymour: Did you find that you had allies in the state who helped you advance this?

timecode Collene: You know, because I've worked on this for a tremendously long period of time, there were people that I felt, and, you know, I don't want this to be partisan 'cause crime is not a partisan issue. I've never known anybody that walked up and said, "You're a Democrat or Republican," you blew their head off. But, Pete Wilson and Dan Longran helped a lot to establish the laws. Pete Wilson, who raised a tremendous amount of money for what became as Prop 115, the Sweeping Justice Reform Act. And I did a lot of whining to him. But when you get into your own personal case, no, you don't dare ask for help for anybody. I mean I don't, I can't talk to the District Attorney and I've worked with the district attorneys around the state for years. But this is a time now I can't talk to those because then you're accused of using some kind of favoritism. So it's harder on me than it is the average person.

timecode Seymour: Collene, were there any secrets or tactics or strategies that you've used to be successful, in promoting victims rights and trying to change the system.

timecode Collene: You know I would say that, I can't say I'm lean, Lord knows that, but I can probably say I'm mean on this issue. I think that going after and speaking out and not being afraid to call exactly what it is. It's unfair. It's, you know, one day I had a friend of mine, who's a black woman. And she says, "This is racial." And I explained to her, "It doesn't matter what color you are. When you become a victim, it is the same thing." And so I went through the whole situation and my case was a lot worse than hers. So this is about what happens to people when somebody gets murdered. And I'm talking about murder because that's the thing that's happened in my family. And uh...

timecode Seymour: Do are a fearless person. I think you have a reputation as that and rightfully so. How does that-- how do you think that makes a difference, both by the impact you have on people but maybe also by the example you set?

timecode Collene: Well, I never feel like I set a good example because to tell you the truth, I kid a lot and laugh about things, to keep from crying. So I become kind of a silly jerk in some areas. But it's what keeps my tears back. But I think more than anything if you fear, Lord, you know, all of this stuff makes dying sound like fun. So you're not afraid.

timecode You know, what are you afraid of? Joining them? I don't think so. No, I'm not afraid. Yes, I know my life is at high risk right now. But I've explained to my family the most important thing of all is to leave this a better world than we've lived through. And the only way we can do this if somebody has some courage to stand up and call it what it is. It's unjust. And, you know, the politicians, God love 'em, you know, it only seems to work if it's something that gets them elected. That's not going to be okay anymore. We're gonna go into the districts and we're gonna call it what it is.

timecode Seymour: Any failures that you can think of in the victims rights movement or field... things that we haven't been as successful as we need to be?

timecode Collene: You know, before I got back in the system here a short time ago, man, I was saying, "We've done some really great things." But getting back into the system again, I'm finding we're way short of what we're, I thought we were. And, you know, sometimes when you're working hard, you think everything's done. But when you look back at the people that are coming in the system now, it's a tragedy. What, I'll give you an example. It's a sad example, but it's an example of a victim service provider in California. The day of the preliminary of my son's murder it was, the guys come in. They're chained. I realize that they strangled my son and threw him out of an airplane. I knew... I knew the one. It was hard. They gave me the finger when they walked in the courtroom. And it was hard for me. They're explaining how they broke his neck in the airplane before they threw him out. And it was so hard for me not to get up and protect my son, as a mom.

timecode But I walked across the hall with the detective, who said, "Why don't we go out for a while?" And I thought at that time it was probably a good idea because I was being the good old Irish defensive mom. And it walked over across the hall and the victim witness service person after Scott had been dead eleven months, his body was never found, she said, "Mrs. Campbell, I've got good news for you." And I thought, "Oh, my God, they found my son." You know, I suppose, I knew better, I suppose, but we never found his body. So what entered into my head. And I said, "What?" And she says, "We have some funds available for your son's funeral." Now, you know, though, that kind of training and I remember looking at her through my tears and I thought, "Where are you? We wouldn't be in the courtroom, if we hadn't buried him. If we found, you know, had we found him. What are people thinking?" So the training of these people -- now keep in mind victim witness people are victim service providers...

timecode ...normally, they are not law-enforcement. They're not prosecutors and they're not victims. So their training has to be extensive if they are to help. And I worry about the fact that, certainly, when you're talking to a victim witness person they can't help you in the courtroom as far as the case is concerned. And that's what I'm most interested in. So they're actually cutting you off from talking to the prosecutor or the investigator. And we need to train them better about how to get information to the prosecutor. They can't take it over because then they become part of the case. So we have to train them how to tell the victim to get that information over to the prosecutor. So there's a lot of things that I think that can be done. My big thing is not sitting around feeling sorry for Gary and I. We can't change the yesterdays. We can only change the tomorrows and that's what we're trying to do. But there's a lot to be done.

timecode Seymour: There sure is. What do you think is the greatest accomplishment of the victims field. And again, Collene, you know, you and Gary have been in it almost since the inception. So the context over the last twenty-one years.

timecode Collene: You know, probably if I were to say the feeling when, in 1982 when Scotty was first murdered and they let the two men out who would be trying for the death penalty with special circumstances, they let 'em out on bail, and I was trying to talk to somebody about how could this possibly be? How could we be going against our Constitution and let these two killers, who are both three strikers, out, back out again? And, so when I went to Sacramento every door was shut in my face. Well, is what happened is that... that we became very angry, with a lot of victims with, Doris Tate, with the Gillises, with a lot of people. And we started in walking those halls and we got rid of people that were not willing to listen to the honest law-abiding citizen. And the fellow that's a judge right now, gosh, his name escapes me, in Sacramento, he was the one that listened to me out of the Governor's office, Pete Wilson's office. And, so at, the door's closed. Well, now because there's some strength in victims and to be honest with you, many legislators like to use the victims for their campaign.

timecode The door is open. So what is success? Probably the fact that victims have started to pick up some strength. Legislators will use them in their campaigns. They'll, some of them will use 'em and not follow through, but we have some that are really trying hard to do the right thing. They have an understanding, that when you have all these staff people in between the legislator, it's very difficult to get a point across.

timecode Seymour: What do you think we need today, Collene, to continue, I think, the growth of our field, the professionalism, sort of, the direction that we're going in. You've talked a little bit already about the training, particularly of victim witnesses. Is there anything else?

timecode Collene: No, you know, I think one of the things in, if I did it in private enterprise if you were talking to some people, who you'd be talking to is the client. In this case, it's the victim. So certainly when there's training the client needs to be there and talk about what may be helpful in many different cases. Right now, the director of the Office of Victims of Crimes is working really hard, John Gillis, on putting a bunch of this together to try to get training that makes some sense. Gillis also had a daughter murdered, so he is more receptive. He understands. He's walked in those shoes. So not only has he been a police officer, you know, he's been as victim of crime. So when I yell into John Gillis' ear, he knows exactly what I'm talking about. And I don't want other people to be victims, but it's nice to have somebody that understands what you're talking about, which is very difficult.

timecode Seymour: You know, the whole concept of victims, not only, training -- professional training -- but victims trying to educate offenders about the victim impact. Victims training, actually being there to train judges and prosecutors and cops. A lot of that came out of California. What do you-- what's in the water under the state? What is it that has made California such an active...

timecode Collene: Well, maybe there's some mean people in California and maybe I have to lay claim to be one of those people. I was in a meeting a short time ago. And this is telling tales out of school and I know this is going on air. But, with a lot of victim service providers, many victim service providers in a circle, probably about fifty, they had invited some victims. But the interesting part about it is, is all the service providers were on a payroll. Their expenses were all paid and they were paid to be there and it was a weekday. But the victims, not only could they not get a good deal on the hotel, like these service providers, but there was no funds available to get the victims there. And they wondered why no victims were there. They didn't care. So, you know, I said my usual probably out of the line stuff, "If you look around the room, you can identify the victims because they're the only ones that paid their own way to get there." They all sat in a circle and talked about this. I think it's very important that the client is there to explain.

timecode Seymour: Advice, Collene. I know we've been joking about being old and stuff, but you've been in this field a long time. There are a lot of people in this field who are new. What advice would you give to professionals and volunteers about the field, about anything? Folks who have just more recently joined our field.

timecode Collene: In, you're talking about people that service the victims?

timecode Seymour: Yes, it could be victims advocates, it could be victim survivors....just from your experience. (Tape turned over)

timecode Seymour: Collene, what advice can you give to professionals and volunteers who have just recently or in the last couple years joined our field, who haven't been around for the past thirty-one years.

timecode Collene: I think the advice that I would give to somebody that's gonna try to help victims whether it... whether it be service providers or law enforcement or what, is try to put yourself in their spot, which is very difficult to do. It's hard for any person to say, "What would I do if my child was killed? How would I respond? How, what would I want the most?" First of all, the thing you want the most is you want the person convicted that hurt your family, whoever that is, whoever that is. Personally I don't want somebody to hold my hand and sit next to me in the courtroom, a total stranger. I want to get that person convicted. I have asked hundreds of crime victims what they want most and it's the same thing. I think that service providers have been taught, different from what the victims want, to be told, "You don't want to look at your child laying there dead." That's not the right way to handle it. If, let me expand, explain this to so and so. "You may want to remember your child as he was yesterday. Today he's got a bullet through his head, as much as I hate to tell you that.

timecode Are you sure you want to go to him?" That, at (cough) excuse me, excuse me, after the police have done their work it's that person's call. How dare somebody to say what they want to do with their own child. How dare somebody to say, "We're gonna bring closure to you." Closure, are you kidding me? For the rest of your life, you've got appeals or you've got parole hearings, if you're lucky enough to get somebody in there. There is never closure to somebody killing your child. My daughter has just recently lost her son, through an accident. And she said to me, "Mom, when am I gonna be okay?" Ask any mom -- she is never gonna be okay. The only thing that's going to help her if she does the best she can while she's here on this earth. And I think for service providers to understand, help people get out of it. It's not okay to sit around and cry and take drugs to get over it. You've got a choice. You've got three choices to do and they're tough (cough) excuse me. They're tough, but first of all, there's never been a family member of a murdered victim that hasn't contemplated suicide that I've ever talked to.

timecode So, they can go ahead kill themselves and join their family. That's not a good choice and people don't usually make that choice. Or they can sit around and weep and cry and go to psychiatrists and take drugs for the rest of their life. They'll lose their husband. Eighty-five percent of parents of murdered children do get divorced. They lose their families because nobody wants to be around those that are weeping and spreading sorrow all the time. Or you can take the third choice, which I hope everybody does. And the third choice is to know you can't change the yesterdays. You can only work on the tomorrows. Work hard to save to your family. Work hard to stop crime and give something back to this country. We're the only ones that's educated in that field. We didn't want this education, but I gotta tell you we've got a hell of an education that will take us a long way, if we choose to use it. But if we sit around and cry, we don't accomplish anything. So I would explain that to the service providers. Don't try to help people sit in their home and sit around crying.

timecode Yes, there... there is that period of time that you feel like you can't move, that you're devastated. But, we were all born with strength. We've just gotta dig deep enough and strength comes from courage and helping others. And, to help this country is really important. And we've gotta speak out and we've gotta go for it.

timecode Seymour: Collene, what's your vision for the future...

timecode Collene: Excuse me, this is really hard and I apologize...

timecode Seymour: Vision for the future. Do you have one for our -- for the field for crime victims, for those who assist them.

timecode Collene: Well, I would like to think the training would improve. Now, you know what, I'm sitting here. There are a lot of people that are really trained well and doing the right thing. We're talking about the problem areas and I hope that people understand that I have tremendous admiration for people in this field. But, is what I'm saying, is that they've gotta get connected and hooked up with what it's really like. Number one, we want the case solved. We want the killer of our child or our husband or our wife or our brother or our sister. And then number two, advise on how to get... get better through it. Connect us with people that we can help. It's tough. And I'll tell you another thing is that it probably helps service providers prepare families that defense attorneys and killers very often, in fact almost a hundred percent of the time, go for the family's reputation. If you can break down their integrity, there was a whole lot of people that probably wanted to kill that person because they were in drugs or prostitution or money laundering or whatever it is.

timecode I mean you're always accused of all of those things, the family and the victim because that makes it okay, maybe for the killer to have killed 'em. Or, "Gee, it wasn't me. It was a hundred other people out there." That's what happens and I think if the family is prepared for that, it's a little less painful when you get up in the morning when you read these terrible things about your family that's worked so hard to have this pristine integrity about their life. So those are the things you don't expect. You don't expect that your family's integrity can be hurt as bad as the killers want to do.

timecode Seymour: Last question. What's your greatest fear? Or do you have a fear for the profession or the field of victim assistance?

timecode Collene: My greatest fear is that I'm gonna die before I can help. My greatest fear is not to get victims to have the same right as the criminals, to continue on at the way we're going. The Constitution was not set out to give killers more rights than the victim and the family members.

timecode Seymour: The Federal Constitution...

timecode Collene: The Federal Constitution. But my greatest fear is that other people have to endure the pain that my family has endured. My granddaughter who's drop-dead beautiful, graduated from college, she said to me the other day. She calls me mom and I love her very much and she says, "Mom, what would it feel like to be in a normal family?" Well, this mom's trying really hard to make our family normal and, you know, it was like somebody took a knife and I said, "What do you mean, sweetheart?" And she says, "Ever since I've been born the justice system has been ruining the life of my grandparents and telling them when they can take vacations." We're never asked if, about a parole hearing. We're never given notification out in front. We're never talked to about a trial date. They just fall when they may. And it's continually all of your life. And so the criminal, the defense attorneys are very keen on sometimes finding that you're supposed to be on vacation then and they'll set the date for that, just like that.

timecode And, so it's hard to run a normal life. So not only do you lose your loved ones, but your life is taken away from you because we have a system that allows the killers and the criminals and the non-honest people to rule this country.

timecode Seymour: Anything, I haven't asked you, Collene, that you want to just say or...

timecode Collene: You know, I just want to fix it so bad because I can sit on camera for three days straight and tell you about the inequities that's happened to people that are really trying to do the right thing. The one thing that I do want to say is that I've got a husband that I worship the ground he walks on and he's allowed me to become deeply involved and finance it all. Nobody finances us. You know, it's not like we have the ACLU that's taking care of us. We're on our own.