A Big Win: H.R.3359 Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act

So very happy and honored to have been on the committee in the beginning to create this bill.

On August 3, 2022 H.R. 3359, the “Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act of 2021,” which establishes a framework for immediate family members of a victim of murder to request a review of case files in a Federal cold case murder, was signed into law by the President.

This bill will give the families of homicide victims in federal cases the right to request a review of the case if the murder was committed more than three years ago, investigative leads have been exhausted, and no likely suspect has been identified.

The Homicide Victim’s Families Rights Act (HR 3359), would also require the federal government to notify family members of their rights and provide them with updates on any cold case review that is undertaken.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle, agreed that they can and must do better for the families of homicide victims seeking justice for their loved ones. This bill is a good start. 

Thank you to Representatives Swalwell and McCaul, and Senators Cornyn, Durbin, Grassley, Coons, Cotton, Ossoff, Blackburn, Whitehouse, and Kennedy. 

#Justiceforallvictims

What does the bill say?

To provide for a system for reviewing the case files of cold case murders at the instance of certain persons, and for other purposes.

1. Short title

This Act may be cited as the Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act of 2021.

2. Case File Review

(a) In general

The head of an agency shall review the case file regarding a cold case murder upon written application by one designated person to determine if a full reinvestigation would result in either the identification of probative investigative leads or a likely perpetrator.

(b) Review

The review under subsection (a) shall include—

(1) an analysis of what investigative steps or follow-up steps may have been missed in the initial investigation;
(2) an assessment of whether witnesses should be interviewed or reinterviewed;
(3) an examination of physical evidence to see if all appropriate forensic testing and analysis was performed in the first instance or if additional testing might produce information relevant to the investigation; and
(4) an update of the case file using the most current investigative standards as of the date of the review to the extent it would help develop probative leads.
(c) Certification in lieu of review
In any case in which a written application for review has been received under this Act by the agency, review shall be unnecessary where the case does not satisfy the criteria for a cold case murder. In such a case, the head of the agency shall issue a written certification, with a copy provided to the designated person that made the application under subsection (a), stating that final review is not necessary because all probative investigative leads have been exhausted or that a likely perpetrator will not be identified.
(d) Reviewer

A review required under subsection (a) shall not be conducted by a person who previously investigated the murder at issue.

(e) Acknowledgment

The agency shall provide in writing to the applicant as soon as reasonably possible—

(1) confirmation of the agency’s receipt of the application under subsection (a); and
(2) notice of the applicant’s rights under this Act.
(f) Prohibition on multiple concurrent reviews

Only one case review shall be undertaken at any one time with respect to the same cold case murder victim.

(g) Time limit

Not later than 6 months after the receipt of the written application submitted pursuant to subsection (a), the agency shall conclude its case file review and reach a conclusion about whether or not a full reinvestigation under section 4 is warranted.

(h) Extensions

(1) In general

The agency may extend the time limit under subsection (g) once for a period of time not to exceed 6 months if the agency makes a finding that the number of case files to be reviewed make it impracticable to comply with such limit without unreasonably taking resources from other law enforcement activities.

(2) Actions Subsequent to Waiver

For cases for which the time limit in subsection (g) is extended, the agency shall provide notice and an explanation of its reasoning to one designated person who filed the written application pursuant to this section.

3. Application

Each agency shall develop a written application to be used for designated persons to request a case file review under section 2.

4. Full reinvestigation

(a) In general

The agency shall conduct a full reinvestigation of the cold case murder at issue if the review of the case file required by section 2 concludes that a full reinvestigation of such cold case murder would result in probative investigative leads.

(b) Reinvestigation

A full reinvestigation shall include analyzing all evidence regarding the cold case murder at issue for the purpose of developing probative investigative leads or a likely perpetrator.

(c) Reviewer

A reinvestigation required under subsection (a) shall not be conducted by a person who previously investigated the murder at issue.

(d) Prohibition on Multiple Concurrent Reviews

Only one full reinvestigation shall be undertaken at any one time with respect to the same cold case murder victim.

5. Consultation and updates

(a) In general

The agency shall consult with the designated person who filed the written application pursuant to section 2 and provide him or her with periodic updates during the case file review and full reinvestigation.

(b) Explanation of Conclusion

The agency shall meet with the designated person and discuss the evidence to explain to the designated person who filed the written application pursuant to section 2 its decision whether or not to engage in the full reinvestigation provided for under section 4 at the conclusion of the case file review.

6. Subsequent reviews

(a) Case file review

If a review under subsection (a) case file regarding a cold case murder is conducted and a conclusion is reached not to conduct a full reinvestigation, no additional case file review shall be required to be undertaken under this Act with respect to that cold case murder for a period of five years, unless there is newly discovered, materially significant evidence. An agency may continue an investigation absent a designated person’s application.

(b) Full Reinvestigation

If a full reinvestigation of a cold case murder is completed and a suspect is not identified at its conclusion, no additional case file review or full reinvestigation shall be undertaken with regard to that cold case murder for a period of five years beginning on the date of the conclusion of the reinvestigation, unless there is newly discovered, materially significant evidence.

7. Data collection

(a) In general

Beginning on the date that is three years after the date of enactment of this Act, and annually thereafter, the Director of the National Institute of Justice shall publish statistics on the number of cold case murders.

(b) Manner of Publication

The statistics published pursuant to subsection (a) shall, at a minimum, be disaggregated by the circumstances of the cold case murder, including the classification of the offense, and by agency.

8. Procedures to promote compliance

(a) Regulations

Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the head of each agency shall promulgate regulations to enforce the right of a designated person to request a review under this Act and to ensure compliance by the agency with the obligations described in this Act.

(b) Procedures

The regulations promulgated under subsection (a) shall—

(1) designate an administrative authority within the agency to receive and investigate complaints relating to a review initiated under section 2 or a reinvestigation initiated under section 4;
(2) require a course of training for appropriate employees and officers within the agency regarding the procedures, responsibilities, and obligations required under this Act;
(3) contain disciplinary sanctions, which may include suspension or termination from employment, for employees of the agency who are shown to have willfully or wantonly failed to comply with this Act;
(4) provide a procedure for the resolution of complaints filed by the designated person concerning the agency’s handling of a cold case murder investigation or the case file evaluation; and
(5) provide that the head of the agency, or the designee thereof, shall be the final arbiter of the complaint, and that there shall be no judicial review of the final decision of the head of the agency by a complainant.
9. Withholding information

Nothing in this Act shall require an agency to provide information that would endanger the safety of any person, unreasonably impede an ongoing investigation, violate a court order, or violate legal obligations regarding privacy.

10. Multiple agencies

In the case that more than one agency conducted the initial investigation of a cold case murder, each agency shall coordinate their case file review or full reinvestigation such that there is only one joint case file review or full reinvestigation occurring at a time in compliance with section 2(f) or 4(d), as applicable.

11. Applicability

This Act applies in the case of any cold case murder occurring on or after January 1, 1970.

12. Definitions

In this Act:

(1) The term designated person means an immediate family member or someone similarly situated, as defined by the Attorney General.
(2) The term immediate family member means a parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandparent-in-law, sibling, spouse, child, or step-child of a murder victim.
(3) The term victim means a natural person who died as a result of a cold case murder.
(4) The term murder means any criminal offense under section 1111(a) of title 18, United States Code, or any offense the elements of which are substantially identical to such section.
(5) The term agency means a Federal law enforcement entity with jurisdiction to engage in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of a cold case murder.
(6) The term cold case murder means a murder—

(A) committed more than three years prior to the date of an application by a designated person under section 2(a);
(B) previously investigated by a Federal law enforcement entity;
(C) for which all probative investigative leads have been exhausted; and
(D) for which no likely perpetrator has been identified.
13. Annual report

(a) In general

Each agency shall submit an annual report to the Committees on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives and of the Senate describing actions taken and results achieved under this Act during the previous year.

(b) Report Described

The report described in subsection (a) shall include—

(1) the number of written applications filed with the agency pursuant to section 2(a);
(2) the number of extensions granted, and an explanation of reasons provided under section 2(h);
(3) the number of full reinvestigations initiated and closed pursuant to section 4; and
(4) statistics and individualized information on topics that include identified suspects, arrests, charges, and convictions for reviews under section 2 and reinvestigations under section 4.

This is not the end of the story – we hold out great hope that the scope of this law will expand in the future to include all cold case homicides or to be a guideline for states to adopt similar legislation. 

 

New Book Released, “Survivors.” Morgan’s story is one of the cases featured in this book…

Great news!!! I am so excited, “Survivors” is now available for order in both paperback and Kindle formats. It will also be available in over 40,000 retail outlets around the world.

I was honored to be one of the contributors to this book, when I was given the opportunity to write a chapter about our daughter Morgan who was murdered and taken from our family, by a stalker. #JusticeForMorgan!

Morgan’s story is one of many cases that have been shared in Dennis Griffin’s book, “Survivors.” This book is a collection of true stories, stories that are truly shocking, all about America’s pursuit of transparency in law enforcement and the justice system. The book has been written by survivors/co-victims of these crimes in order to raise awareness. I am so proud of every single one of these families who had the courage to share their stories. I truly believe that when you #speakyourtruth you can help many other families that are dealing with the same issues. I would also like to give my heartfelt thanks to Denny, Delilah & Lynda for all of their help making this possible. #nevergiveup #raiseawareness #justiceforallvictims #betheirvoice #beapartofthesolution

Please share the link below with family, friends, and on your social media. I would also like to ask all of you who purchase the book, to please rate the book with a 5-star rating after reading it. As Lynda Cheldelin Fell explains, “Why is that important? A collective push right out of the starting gate is how a book reaches that coveted #1 position. Why is reaching #1 important? Because it reaches more readers. And even more important is the visibility and opportunity to open the dialogue about such an important subject as this. The Amazon ratings change hourly. For those of you on Amazon, would you be kind enough to write a 5-star review? The better the rating, the easier it becomes for readers to find.”

Morgan’s Mini Lava Cakes…

Morgan loved to bake…and as you can see she also loved to photograph everything 🙂

For the first 2 years after Morgan’s murder I could barely breathe. Sounds crazy, I know. I didn’t consciously know I was holding my breath, but I was. When you lose a child like this the pain is so great that it’s hard to breathe.

I was in what I now call “Survival Mode” where I was just going through my normal everyday paces, trying to smile for others, trying to act like I wasn’t falling apart inside…but I was. Confusion, shock, and anger became my daily state of being. I couldn’t sleep – thoughts kept running through my mind, I had so much guilt for not getting Morgan away soon enough, as I knew she was in danger. I was constantly wondering about what really happened to her. Wanting to know if she suffered, and why this happened to her…many times feeling like I was just having a nightmare, and if I could just wake up everything would be fine again and Morgan would be off at college studying for tests.

I wanted to talk to others about Morgan, about what had happened, I wanted to shout it out, I wanted to tell people, “No, I am not okay,” but instead all I could do, when they asked how I was holding up, was to say, “I am fine.”

Six months after Morgan’s murder, someone actually said, “I want my old Toni back,” I was shocked! My mind could not even imagine how those words could come out of someone’s mouth…what had happened to my youngest daughter had forever changed me. and I knew I would never be the same, I could not understand how others could not understand that the old Toni was gone forever, along with Morgan.

So, now over 7 years later, I can finally say that I have come to terms with the fact that this pain will never go away, I have just learned to live with it. I now use that pain and the knowledge that it has given me, to try and help others. Onward I go in the pursuit of justice for Morgan, raising awareness of the seriousness of stalkers, and reaching out to others in need of an ear. Just as Morgan’s story needed to be told, so many other stories as well, they need to be told so no victim will be forgotten…they all matter, they were all loved and they all had hopes and dreams that were violently taken from them, just like Morgan.

#JusticeforMorgan  #JusticeforAllVictims

THE VOICE OF DESPAIR CAN BECOME ONLY A SOFT WHISPER…

I decided, after Morgan’s murder, that I would not allow myself to be a victim – I needed to take action in order to achieve justice for Morgan, as well as for so many other innocent victims in this world.

I get knocked down a lot – and yes, I feel sad and deflated – but the one thing I will never do is give up…every single day I wake up with a passion to get going, to take action and make something good happen. Don’t get me wrong, I make mistakes and I spend a lot of energy going in the wrong direction, but I continue to take action…I always pick myself up and try a different direction. The Universe seems to propel me when I am pointed in the right direction, just as it seems to knock me down when I am pointed in the wrong direction.

Joan Baez was right when she said, “ACTION IS THE ANTIDOTE TO DESPAIR”

As long as I keep moving forward, that little voice of despair seems to become a soft whisper, instead of an overwhelming thundering sound. Onward my friends!

November 28, 2018 – remembering that Morgan loved the Spice Girls…

Morgan grew up believing she could do anything she put her mind to. During the 4 months she was stalked she still believed this…she posted on her Facebook page (during the stalking) asking her friends if anyone was interested in joining her in a grassroots effort to start a Chapter of The National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW is an American feminist organization founded in 1966.

Here are some of the notes I found in her stuff after she died…yes, I have kept almost all of her things. She still inspires me and I love her.