Golden State Killer: Writing My Victim Impact Statement

[Update Aug 25, 2020: I got it done, here’s the final statement. This guy is behind bars for life. Hallelujah.]

I typically don’t struggle to find the words. I enjoy writing and I’ve worked in marketing my whole life: using words is what I do. But as the sentencing hearing of Joseph DeAngelo, the now convicted Golden State Killer grows near, my statement is due and I don’t even have a first draft.

If you look at how the legal system works, Victim Impact Statements play an important role (see Ventura’s guidelines). They are intended to help the judge to understand three things about the victim, relative to the crime: the physical, emotional, and financial effects of the crime. From there, the judge may use that information to determine sentencing and financial restitution. We address our remarks to him, not the defendant.

Lyman and Charlene Smith, Christmas, 1975 in Santa Paula, California.
Lyman and Charlene Smith, Christmas, 1975 in Santa Paula, California.
My dad, Lyman Smith and his wife, Charlene Smith the Christmas following their wedding, 1975.

After forty years, this is not an easy task.

DeAngelo sadistically raped and then tortured and killed my stepmother and my father in Ventura, California in 1980. I was just 18 and my brothers were 15 and 12. My younger brother was the one who found them, three days dead, in their bed. It was like a bomb went off in our young lives. For twenty years, we thought it was a horrific murder in a small town.

Then, in 2000, we learned they were killed by an unnamed serial killer — connected to other murders in southern California. Two years later, those crimes were tied to the notorious East Area Rapist in northern California. He’s also responsible for a series of break-ins in the central valley, attributed to the Visalia Ransacker. While he was convicted on 26 felony counts and admits responsibility for nearly 60 more crimes, we know there are more that will never be recorded in the history books.

In America, being a victim isn’t desirable.

I find this ironic since almost everyone has either been victimized or knows someone who has. Yet, our American Experience looks to us to push past the weakness associated with being a victim and soldier on. We are taught to avoid and discount victimhood. Maybe that’s why writing a Victim Impact Statement feels so damn hard.

Do I write from the perspective of my dad and stepmom?

Truly they are his victims. They didn’t survive his brutality and their lives held promise. My dad was likely to become a judge. My stepmom was ready to have children. They were at that point in life where their income was predictable, their lives stable and they were building a new home for their growing family. My dad loved politics and I always imagined him as a state legislator or Congressman. But that would never be.

Do I write from the perspective of their parents, siblings, best friends who understood the significance of their loss much more than we could as children?

Charlene was a tremendous friend to those in her circle — and beyond — and a godmother to two young children who likely couldn’t articulate their loss when she disappeared. My dad was a trusted advisor to his friends and business associates, steeped in investments and projects that he hoped would help accelerate his wealth and power as he worked to climb the ladder of success. My grandfather worked for the railroad and to have a son that was an accomplished lawyer was something that made him feel so proud.

Do I write from the perspective of my siblings?

I’ve carried the ball for my family, representing the Smiths and doing my best to accurately portray my dad and stepmom in a way that shows both their strengths and their vulnerabilities. My brothers don’t like to talk about the case; likely an artifact of the feelings and heaviness associated with being a victim. The biggest shared experience of our lives has been met with forty years of silence as we continue to ignore the elephant in the room. I’m not sure there are words that can characterize this experience.

Finally, do I just write from my perspective?

At 18, how it felt to be a suspect for two days. What it was like to live in shame as my community wondered why I could be a suspect. Or at 39, as a single mom by choice with a new baby, when I learned there was a serial killer on the loose who delighted in torturing his victims. Or at age 56, with DeAngelo’s arrest, when I fell into a dark abyss, faced with reconciling the past I had avoided because we’d all come to terms with the fact there might never be an arrest.

I am a changed person.

Don’t let anyone tell you your life can’t change significantly in your 50s. It can. I’ve made incredible new friends with men and women who survived DeAngelo’s assaults, I’ve gained a boatload of self-knowledge as my adult perspective reshaped my youthful narrative, and I’ve learned more about justice and evil than I thought possible.

I don’t know that there’s a way to capture all the ways DeAngelo’s actions have impacted my life. But I know I must try — for my dad, Charlene, my uncle, my grandparents, my brothers, and myself.

[Joseph DeAngelo returns to court for sentencing on August 17, 2020 in Sacramento, California barring any Covid-related delays. We expect the hearing to be live-streamed.]

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