Published 12:00 am Monday, June 4, 2007

For the surviving relatives of murder victims Alfred and Georgia Lussier, the killer’s parole is an unwelcome reminder of why the state was compelled to impose victims’ rights legislation and structured sentencing laws more than a decade ago.
It might be that, even if the Lussiers’ relatives had known that parole was being considered for Margaret Smith Perry, their opposition to her release wouldn’t have made any difference. Perry, who was convicted of second-degree murder and received two consecutive life sentences in the 1986 slayings of the Kannapolis couple, was freed from prison last week after serving 20 years. The parole board says she has paid her debt to society, and anguished pleas from the victims’ relatives might not have tilted the scales. But it’s a miscarriage of communication, if not justice, that they didn’t get a chance to try.
Since Perry’s conviction in 1987, the judicial landscape has changed considerably. In 1991, amid criticism that criminals’ rights were being protected more than those of victims, the state passed the Victims’ Rights Constitutional Amendment to ensure that victims of a crime are notified of any pending change in a criminal’s status. That was followed, in 1994, by structured sentencing, which was designed to establish more uniformity in sentencing and end the early releases that routinely frustrated police, prosecutors and crime victims who often felt doubly violated by the revolving-door aspect of the criminal-justice system.
Because the Lussiers’ deaths occurred before the structured sentencing law took effect, Perry was eligible to be considered for parole, which the board granted. While 20 years is not an inconsequential time to spend behind bars, it isn’t a punishment that is in any way commensurate with the murders of two people, nor with two life sentences that were supposedly to be served consecutively.
Surviving family members are understandably outraged at Smith’s release. As a letter to the editor elsewhere on this page indicates, they’re also upset that they received no prior notification that the release was being considered or, subsequently, had been granted. Technically, family members of the victim needed to have requested to be on a notification list. But at the time the crime occurred, the 1991 victims’ legislation hadn’t been enacted, and Lussiers’ survivors said they were assured that Perry would spend most, if not all, of the rest of her life in prison. They had no reason to doubt that would be the case. So in addition to the shock of Perry’s premature parole, they also have to endure the indignity of being treated as if they are disinterested bystanders, rather than still-grieving relatives.
While it appears the Lussiers’ survivors have little recourse now, other crime victims and their relatives who want to be apprised of such changes should make sure they’re on a notification list, especially if the crime in question occurred before passage of the 1991 measure. Otherwise, they might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Although victims and their relatives have rights, don’t assume they’re automatically recognized.
the parole board may only be required to not have been required to notify the victims’ family members of the parole request, but it shows a callous disregard not to have done so. The Lussiers’ survivors are not disinterested bystanders in this process, and the fact that 20 years have passed doesn’t negate the depth of their loss. They might not have been able to sway the outcome, but they should at least have been given a voice in the proceedings.