Cass County pauses to remember 68 shortened livesPublished 12:49pm Thursday, April 29, 2010
By JOHN EBY
CASSOPOLIS – Cass County’s criminal justice system crowded around the flagpole in front of the 2004 Law and Courts Building at noon Wednesday, April 21 to pay tribute to “68 names, 68 life stories, 68 tragedies,” as Prosecutor Victor Fitz phrased it.
The 68 are victims who lost their lives due to county crime since 1989.
Their names were read and tulips in a variety of colors were placed in front of the permanent fieldstone victims memorial.
For a somber event, which usually unfolds in gusts, rain and cold beneath leaden skies, Wednesday was the rare warm, sunny exception.
The observance at one time featured balloons, which were abandoned after repeated failures to launch.
Usually wind drove them across M-62 on a line like gunshots, startling traffic passing the courthouse.
“Last year we had some pretty inclement weather,” Fitz recalled. “We obviously got a beautiful day today for which we are thankful.”
Fitz introduced dignitaries, including Judges Susan Dobrich and Stacey Rentfrow, Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert Ziliak of Milton Township, Commissioners Gordon Bickel of Porter Township and Dixie Ann File of Cassopolis, Sheriff Joe Underwood, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Frank Machnik, Undersheriff Rick Behnke, sheriff’s Capt. Lyndon Parrish, sheriff’s Sgt. Phil Esarey and Juvenile Division Attorney-Referee Leigh Feldman.
Addressing nine families known to have attended on behalf of their loved ones (Deputy Shane Britton died July 19, 2001, in the line of duty while responding to a domestic violence call), Fitz said, “As you work with Amanda (Smego, his victim coordinator) and the attorneys in my office and our support staff, you really do become part of our family, too. We consider you that way.”
Fitz recounted how victims’ rights have evolved over the past 25 years.
“Victims now are treated with fairness, dignity and respect because of work that has been put in by legislators, prosecutors and victim advocates and citizens,” he said. “They have worked so hard to make sure victims have a place at the table in the criminal justice system.
Every state in our Union has now passed a victims’ rights act. Also, all states have funds for victims’ rights board. There are now more than 10,000 victim assistance programs that exist throughout the United States of America. Thirty-two states have passed constitutional amendments that recognize the rights of victims in the criminal justice system. Twenty-five years ago, none of that was in the system.
“Today, in particular,” Fitz continued, “we remember those persons who cannot exercise those rights because, as each of you know full well, they paid the ultimate price. Today we remember 68 names, 68 life stories, 68 tragedies and 68 terrible, terrible deaths” – including three since the 2009 observance, Zane Shilts, June 11; Thomas Hiatt, Aug. 14; and Patrick Carter, Oct. 19.”