By PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
Miriam Shehane never intended to be a crusader. Her daughter’s murder changed that.
Thirty years ago, Shehane and other crime victims formed Victims of Crime and Leniency and led a victims’ rights movement that reshaped Alabama’s judicial system.
At 80, she’s still at it.
Her slain daughter is the reason.
“I can’t stand the thought of Quenette being forgotten. That is what has given me such drive,” she said Tuesday.
Quenette Shehane was a Birmingham-Southern College graduate on Dec. 20, 1976, and was supposed to make a quick trip to a nearby convenience store to get salad dressing to go with the steaks her boyfriend was cooking at his fraternity house.
Instead, she was kidnapped from the store parking lot, raped and killed. Her body was found the next day.
Seven trials involving three young men ended with one being executed nearly 14 years after the crime, another sentenced to life in prison without parole, and the other getting a life sentence.
When her daughter was killed, Shehane was a bank employee in the small southeast Alabama town of Clio, and that’s how she expected to spend her life. But her frustration with the legal system changed that.
Before she and other crime victims launched the group in 1982, they persuaded the Legislature to end a trial system that allowed a defense attorney to strike, or remove, two potential jurors for each one the prosecution got to remove. When Shehane first talked to legislators about providing an equal number of strikes, she was told over and over, “’Mrs. Shehane, you don’t understand the judicial system.’
“I said, ‘The heck I don’t. I’m living it.”’
Shehane credits Jimmy Evans, a former state attorney general and former Montgomery County district attorney, with encouraging crime victims to form VOCAL in 1982 to provide an organized way to change Alabama’s legal system. They were part of a wave of public sentiment that would lead to new programs in Alabama to help victims of rape, child abuse and domestic abuse.
Shehane served as VOCAL’s president for many years and then as executive director.
Evans said Shehane’s leadership was key to VOCAL’s impact. “Miriam would have a substantial impact on legislators when she spoke to them. She spoke from the heart,” he said.
He said it’s hard for people to imagine how crime victims were treated back prior to the 1980s. “It was a desert for them,” he said.
Shehane and other members championed a new law that allowed crime victims to be in the courtroom even if they were going to testify. Shehane said Alabama’s old system forced the relatives of a slaying victim to stay outside the courtroom during a trial if they were going to testify. Testimony as simple as saying they identified a body was enough to get them excluded.
VOCAL members also got laws passed that allowed crime victims or their families to sit at the prosecutor’s table during a trial, that required victims of violent crimes to be notified of inmates’ parole hearings, and that created a state fund to compensate crime victims and their families. Shehane has served on the board of Alabama’s Crime Victims Compensation Commission all but six months of its existence.
A large part of what Shehane and VOCAL members do has nothing to do with the Legislature. They help new crime victims understand the criminal justice system and they listen a lot.
“As another victim, the best thing you can do is to let them vent and let them know you are there to listen,” he said.
Shehane wasn’t just a victim of crime once. Twelve years ago, she was getting out of her car in her driveway in Clio when a masked man approached her with a sawed-off shotgun.
“I went to my knees and said, ‘Oh no, I’m going out of this world like Quenette.”’
The gunman grabbed her purse and ran. He didn’t realize it had just been given to her and only contained lipstick.
He was caught within 45 minutes and is now serving a life sentence as a repeat offender.
Shehane, Evans and many other VOCAL supporters will gather in Montgomery on Thursday night to observe the organization’s 30th anniversary.
Last year, she turned over the executive director’s job to a younger but equally motivated crime victim, Janette Grantham, the sister of slain Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham. Nowadays, Shehane is conducting less of the day-to-day business at VOCAL. But she’s still serving as project director and making sure the public doesn’t forget Quenette or other crime victims.
“I want to see VOCAL continue long after I’m gone,” she said.