On June 17, 1988, Joanna Katz's life was changed forever. That night, she and another woman were abducted at gunpoint, taken to an abandoned house in Charleston, South Carolina, and brutally raped, beaten and tortured by five men for more than five hours. SENTENCING THE VICTIM is the story of how a blood soaked 19-year-old was able to walk away from her attackers, save her friend from certain death and continue fighting for the convictions of her assailants—and for the rights of crime victims everywhere.
Under South Carolina law, felons convicted prior to 1996 can eventually be considered for parole every 2 years. Despite their 30-to-35-year sentences, Katz's attackers were eligible for parole after serving only a fraction of this time. And in a particularly cruel twist, criminals in South Carolina who participate in a group assault receive separate parole hearings on separate days. Victims who wish to oppose parole for their attackers must subject themselves to an emotionally agonizing experience that must be repeated year after year. In order to ensure that her attackers would remain behind bars, Joanna Katz had to travel over 100 miles from her home in Charleston to the state capital numerous times every year to attend separate parole hearings for each of the five men who assaulted her.
For the past seven years, filmmaker Liz Oakley has documented Katz’s frequent appearances before the parole board. The revelations are shocking. The hearings continue until the criminals are either paroled or complete their sentences and are released back into the community. With each hearing, Katz reopens old wounds. With each hearing, she wonders who was really sentenced: was it her attackers, up for parole after serving a minimal sentence, or was it her, forced to relive her trauma over and over again?
SENTENCING THE VICTIM is the story of one woman's journey to heal, opening our eyes to the inequities of our judicial system—a system which often imposes scars upon the same violent crime victims it is designed to protect. It is a story about turning empathy into action, about turning something horrible into something good. Most of all, it is a story about survival.
In July 2004, Joanna Katz reported that several parole board practices have been reformed since the making of the film—most importantly, the passage of South Carolina’s Bill S935, which requires that all codefendants convicted on one case to have their combined parole hearings on a single day. Victims will no longer have to attend hearings more than once every two years.
Another addition to the bill is that South Carolina’s Probation, Parole and Pardon Services are now required to provide victims with review information on all defendants who meet parole eligibility prior to the parole hearing date. Victims who want to oppose parole hearings without having to travel will also now have the option of attending via a satellite videoconferencing system.
“To say we are ecstatic would be an understatement,” says Katz. “It is what we have been striving for all along.”
Read an Inside Indies Q&A with Liz Oakley and Joanna Katz about parole board practices reform >>