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story.lead_photo.caption Boone County Community Against Violence founder, Shaunda Hamilton, gives an emotional speach to the crowd gathered for the Candlelight Vigil for Crime Victim's Rights outside the Cole County Sheriff's Office on High Street. Shaun Zimmerman / News Tribune photo

While work is taking place in the Missouri Legislature and courts to help those who have been victimized by crimes, the victims are continuing to seek ways to help themselves and others from having to go through the trauma they have suffered and seeing that perpetrators are held accountable.

As part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week, a candlelight vigil honoring victims of crime took place Monday night outside the Cole County Sheriff's Department on East High Street.

Among the speakers was state Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin. Prior to seeking elected office, Roberts was chief of the Joplin Police Department and then director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Roberts began his career in law enforcement in 1971 and remembered how victims of domestic violence were not treated with the kind of compassion that has come about over the last several years. Coming into the Legislature, Roberts said he wanted to distance himself from his law enforcement career, but found he was able to work on ways to help people thanks to that experience.

Currently, Roberts has been working on legislation dealing with domestic violence and stalking. Those bills have made their ways through both chambers, and he said they have good chances of being passed in this session. One of those bills, House Bill 744, came about after Roberts met with a group of women who were victims of domestic assault, one of whom had to go to court 69 times on her particular case.

"It's my hope that your 70th visit to court will be your last because that bill will allow a judge to have a hearing and make conclusions of fact that could declare a person dangerous and issue a protection order that would last a lifetime of the abuser," Roberts said. "The accused would have the right to convince the judge that they were somehow rehabilitated, but the burden of proof is on them. No longer would the victim have to go back to court every year to get a new protection order."

Boone County Community Against Violence founder Shaunda Hamilton also spoke.

Hamilton founded the group after losing her 18-year-old daughter, Nadria Wright, to gun violence in September 2019 in Columbia. Hamilton told the crowd the perpetrator in her daughter's case entered an Alford plea, which she said she didn't know was going to happen.

An Alford plea is defined as a guilty plea in which a defendant maintains his or her innocence, but admits the prosecution's evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict if brought to trial. Hamilton said because of this, the perpetrator was sentenced to seven years in prison instead of getting a harsher sentence under his original charge of second-degree murder.

"This was my first experience in the court system, and I heard stories from others about their experiences, but didn't think anything about it," Hamilton said. "I would like to see that along with these laws there is a way to make sure that they are enforced because otherwise all they are is just something on paper and they mean nothing."

Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson told the crowd his office was committed to defending the rights of victims. Currently they have three victim's advocates working in different areas.

"They work on domestic abuse cases as well as crimes against children," Thompson said. "We try to make sure victims are kept informed about what is going on in their cases and let them know that even though the final decision does rest with my office, that they do have a voice, and it will always be heard."

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