It has been an agonizing three years for Stephen and Joanne Kenney, ever since their teenage son, Matthew, was struck and killed while riding his bike on a Connecticut roadway. Now the man who killed Matthew is suing the Kenneys for negligence; from his jail cell.
"What this does is re-victimize them, it suggests that somehow the victim and his parents contributed to his own death," said Michelle Cruz, a Connecticut state victim advocate.
Prosecutors alleged that David Weaving was driving more than 80 miles an hour in Waterbury April 27, 2007, when he struck and killed Matthew Kenney, 14, according to court documents. Weaving had a history of driving violations, including four convictions for drunk driving.
In this case, he was convicted of manslaughter and is serving a 10-year sentence.
After his conviction, the Kenneys sued Weaving and the Connecticut Department of Motor vehicles for negligence, alleging that Weaving's license should have been revoked because of his repeated drunk driving convictions. The state DMV is fighting the case.
From behind bars, Weaving responded with a countersuit alleging that the Kenneys allowed their son to ride his bike without a helmet, which contributed to his death. The lawsuit stated that the Kenneys did not "comply with the responsibilities of a parent or guardian and the laws of this state."
Such a counterclaim serves as an "emotional slap in the face" to a victim, advocate Cruz said.
She admitted, however, that victims who sue leave themselves open to counterclaims such as the one Weaving has filed.
And that's the way it should be, said Andrew Cates, an attorney appointed by Connecticut to argue Weaving's separate appeal in the manslaughter case. "What would people have him do? If they are going to take him into court, he has the right to defend himself," Cates said.
"I don't think the balance is tipped in the favor of David Weaving. He has very limited resources, he has to be his own lawyer ? it's very, very difficult."
Inmates Have Every Right to Sue
That's not how the victims see it, said Cruz, who sees about 1,000 crime victims pass through her office ever year. "The victims feel like the system is stacked in favor of the defendant," she said. "A lot of the court system is geared to the defendant's due process rights."
Indeed, convicted criminals have every right to sue anyone they wish, and they do. Inmates file thousands of lawsuits across the country every year. While many are frivolous -- suing over television privileges or bad food -- some are not.
Even the precedent-setting case establishing the right to counsel started with a convicted criminal, Clarence Earl Gideon. Gideon couldn't afford an attorney in 1961 so he represented himself and ended up getting a five-year sentence for petty theft. But Gideon took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1963 that anyone charged with a serious crime must have a lawyer; even if they couldn't afford one.
But the constitutional rights of criminals often hold little sway among victims. In interview with the Associated Press, an angry Joanne Kenney said, "It drags the pain on. It's a constant reminder."
Matthew was in seventh-grade when he died; just a typical 14-year-old kid who played sports and had many friends. A YouTube video tribute has been viewed by thousands of people and a Facebook memorial page has more than 650 members.
Both sides agree that Kenney and his friends were out biking around dinnertime April 27, 2007, when he was struck by a car and sustained serious injuries. When their son was declared brain dead the next day, his parents ended up donating Matthew's heart because "he had such a big one."
The Kenneys said their son was doing nothing wrong the night of the accident but Cates, the lawyer representing Weaving in his appeal, pointed out that the road where the boys were biking is a major thoroughfare with lots of traffic.
"I have kids I wouldn't let them play there," Cates said. "Forget about the helmet. What are these kids doing; that's a question."
Cates acknowledged the public outcry over an inmate's suing his victim's family but argued that most of the outrage "is generated by the way the story is played. I'll say it again," Cates said. "If somebody comes along and says I'm going to sue you, you would be nuts to say I'm just going to let it go."