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County judge explains decision after victims rights advocates file complaints

Judge Kenneth Walker. (File Photo)

A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge sent an internal email to all county judges the same day victims rights advocates announced they filed complaints over the judge's behavior during a January sentencing hearing.

During the Jan. 29 sentencing of Zachary Ball, Judge Kenneth Walker interrupted Ball's ex-girlfriend Dana Parks three times and ultimately left the courtroom before she finished her victims' impact statement.

At a show-cause hearing last Friday, Parks' attorneys argued he violated her constitutional rights to be reasonably heard during the sentencing hearing.

Judge Walker said Parks' could finish her statement and address the court, but could not re-read her entire statement. He ultimately decided he did not violate her rights.

Shortly after the Friday hearing, an email Judge Walker sent to all other judges surfaced.

In the email, dated March 30, Judge Walker explained his behavior and provided context as to why he made the decision to interrupt and end Park's statement.

"I am aware that this is a public record and I was going to let this die a natural death . but since it won't go away. I need to comment," he wrote. "For those of you who know me you do not have to read further because you know you only got half the story. And you know I am one of the most empathetic people in the world. Because of the many tragedies and violence I experienced in my own life I have nothing but sympathy for all crime victims."

Approximately ten minutes into Parks' statement, Judge Walker interrupted her when she began to detail an alleged sexual assault.

"Ma'am, please don't tell me the details of that," Walker said. "Why?" Parks replied. "I don't want to hear them. Continue with your message."

"When a victim starts talking about crimes that were never alleged or charged, I try to redirect them to how the crime affected them," Walker wrote in the email. "When a victim talks about their sex life unrelated to the charges, I try to redirect them to how the crime affected them."

On Friday, Parks' said Walker could have handled it different.

"I was told, 'I don't want to hear that,' not objection, you cannot say that," Parks said during Friday's show-cause hearing. "It was, 'I do not want to hear that.'"

When Parks' began to discuss what her friends said about Ball on social media, Walker interrupted her again; and a third time when Parks' addressed her ex-boyfriend's upbringing.

In Walker's email, he said he would have handled things differently if he had another chance.

"Words matter and in 99.9 of the cases I've had I am careful to remember how important every word I say is," he wrote. "And how important this day is to every person in court. If I had to do over again my contact with the victim would be different. I would say 'please direct your comments to the court on how this affected you' . which is what I normally do."

Ball pleaded guilty in December to felony assault IV, attempted assault and coercion. He was sentenced to three years in prison, a stipulated sentencing agreed to by Parks.

But victims rights advocates remain unwavering, and believe the email is incriminating.

"After listening to the victim for 20 minutes and being unable to get her on track my frustration showed," Walker wrote. "I know Judges are held to a higher standard and should never reveal impatience.."

He continued by saying, "The standard under the law is the right to be "heard". That could mean something different to every judge. Maybe its time for the executive committee to adopt some policy or guideline so this doesn't happen again."

Lewis & Clark law professor Tung Yin says victims' impact statements, while extremely important, are not boundless.

"During a sentencing hearing, the victim has a right to speak reasonably. But, what is 'reasonably,'" Yin said. "That’s going to be up to the judge generally to decide."

Yin said both time and content of the statement are important factors.

"Obviously, if a victim starts reading out of the phone book, the true filibuster, and it’s going to take six weeks, at some point the judge would be entitled to say, 'I’m sorry, but this is not reasonable,'" he said.

Same rules apply to the statement's content.

"Let's say that during a domestic violence case ... the victim were to start talking about some 9/11 conspiracy theories. Again, I think at that point the judge will be entitled to say, this is not reasonably related to the matter," Yin said.

Yin said judges will routinely object to content that introduces alleged crimes and hearsay, especially when it is beyond what was discussed in court because the defendant does not have a fair attempt to disprove the claims.

"Had this all been things that the judge had a hearing on and considered, it would all be fair game to consider at sentencing," Yin said. "This case, maybe one of these where, the context looks to some people maybe as unrelated, and to others as clearly related."

If Parks' attorneys appeals Judge Walker's decision, the case would likely go to the state Court of Appeals.

"There're lots of different things everybody could’ve done differently," Yin said. "I think the easy thing that the judge could have done in this case, is to let the victim have a say, and then simply say, 'Well, thank you. We did not have a hearing on this.'"

Walker was appointed as a Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge by Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Prior to that, Walker was an attorney. He helped establish the first African-American law firm in Oregon with law partner Ernest Warren in 1990, according to the Oregon State Bar Association.

Read Judge Kenneth Walker's full email:

"I am aware that this is a public record. and I was going to let this die a natural death . but since it won't go away. I need to comment.

For those of you who know me you do not have to read further because you know you only got half the story. And you know I am one of the most empathetic people in the world. Because of the many tragedies and violence I experienced in my own life I have nothing but sympathy for all crime victims.

For you others l want to say I know making a victims statement can be cathartic and in over a 1000 hearings I have basically allowed victims to say what they need to for as long as they want. When a victim starts talking about the defendants mother( seated in the courtroom) in a negative way I try to redirect them back to how the crime affected them. when a victim starts talking about crimes that were never alleged or charged, I try to redirect them to how the crime affected them. When a victim talks about their sex life unrelated to the charges ,I try to redirect them to how the crime affected them. When a victim talks about how and what her friends on Instagram thought about the defendant , I try to redirect them to talk about how the crime it affected them.

Words matter and in 99.9 of the cases I've had I am careful to remember how important every word I say is.

And how important this day is to every person in court.

If I had to do over again my contact with the victim would be different. I would say "please direct your comments to the court on how this affected you" . which is what I normally do.

As you all know this was a stipulated sentence agreed to by the Victim. Defendant had pled earlier in the month and this was set over for a short sentencing hearing where I had previously agreed to follow the agreed on sentence of 3 years in prison. and was scheduled for a short hearing.

After listening to the victim for 20 minutes and being unable to get her on track my frustration showed. I know Judges are held to a higher standard and should never reveal impatience..

The victim has requested and I had agreed over defense objection and before any complaints were filed with the judicial fitness to allow the victim to complete her statement.

The standard under the law is the right to be "heard". That could mean something different to every judge.

Maybe its time for the executive committee to adopt some policy or guideline so this doesn't happen again.

If anyone wants to talk to me personally about this feel free to drop by or send me an email.
Ken"

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