My daughter was murdered. Now I fight for rights of victims, their families

On Dec. 6, 2004, my daughter, Johnia Berry, a bright and ambitious student at the University of Tennessee, was brutally stabbed and murdered. As the mother of a daughter who passed away during a violent crime, I know how important it is for victims’ families to have a voice in the criminal legal system.

The emotional, physical, and mental toll of losing a loved one can easily make their families feel helpless and forgotten, and that is only exacerbated by the justice system.

I know how it feels to be kept in the dark when it comes to updates regarding court proceedings and the accused. Along with the emotions Johnia and Joan Berrysurviving victims and their loved ones feel in the aftermath of a horrific crime, they must deal with the anger, exhaustion, and despair of traversing the criminal court system. But Marsy’s Law provides victims and their families with a tool to regain control, which is often difficult under the construct of our jusFortunately for Tennesseans, the Tennessee House of Representatives recently took important action to remedy this problem. The House passed Marsy's Law for Tennessee, a necessary step toward protecting victims' rights and providing them and their families with a voice in the legal process.

We need the Tennessee Senate to join the House’s lead and pass Marsy's Law during the next legislative session to ensure victims’ rights can be enshrined in our state’s constitution.

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Marsy’s Law guarantees common-sense rights for the victims of crimes, including the right for a victim to be notified of the release of an abuser, the right to be notified about proceedings and be vocal in those proceedings, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect through the judicial process. Perhaps most importantly, this law would provide the right to protection and privacy from the defendant. As a mother whose daughter lost her life in a senseless crime, I urge the Tennessee legislature to vote to pass Marsy’s Law and allow citizens to vote on making this a constitutional amendment. The state legislature has an important – and vital – role to play in the justice system. I know that because I’ve worked with legislators to make a fundamental improvement before.

In the case of my daughter’s murder, there was DNA left at the scene of the crime, but we quickly found out that CODIS – the acronym for the Combined DNA Index System and the generic term used to describe the FBI’s program of support for criminal justice DNA databases as well as the software used to run them – lacked critical information to help solve crimes. That’s when we began working with our state representatives and state senators to implement a solution: The Johnia Berry Act 2007 requires a person arrested for a violent felony to have a biological specimen for the purpose of DNA analysis taken. Think of the vast impact that law and laws as it implemented across the country have had in ensuring victims can seek justice.

I’m grateful to state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood and Sen. John Stevens for leading the effort to pass Marsy’s Law and to all of the members of the Tennessee House who co-sponsored and supported this legislation. It is my hope that during the next legislative session, the Senate joins them in supporting this crucial step toward making sure victims of violent crimes and their families are not revictimized by the judicial system. Victims of crime should have rights, and it's time to ensure they do.

Joan Berry

Joan Berry is an advocate for DNA arrestee legislation and for victims’ rights. She founded and serves as the president of Hope for Victims, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Knoxville that was formed to help families and victims of violent crimes.