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Change highlights victims' forum

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 7:06 p.m.

It was a night of change.

Unexpected change. Anticipated change. Uncertain change.

But the three crime victims who spoke at a forum Thursday at Jeannette High School all said they experienced change, in some form, as the result of the crimes committed against them or their loved ones.

Donald Watkins, of Delmont, said he felt anger after he lay near Old Route 66 with life-threatening injuries, the victim of a driver who was traveling the wrong way and then fled the scene of an accident on July 3, 2002.

"His actions were beyond belief," Watkins told about 100 people at the forum sponsored by the Westmoreland County Juvenile Probation Department, the District Attorney's Office and the Victim/Witness Office. "My life changed forever."

But the anger he felt in the months and years after the accident changed, he said.

Watkins forgave that driver. He explained why to the audience.

"I knew to continue on my negative course would be self-defeating," he said. "The result would be no closure.

"Change, forgiveness and closure have given me my life back."

Crime victim Mary Berecky said a day doesn't pass when she doesn't think of her assault by John Bolam. He was convicted of striking her in the head approximately 20 times with a pipe or club Sept. 2, 2002, at the 66 Suds Car Wash in Hempfield Township.

"My life is forever changed by a complete stranger," she said. "Being a victim leaves a person raw."

But Berecky, a reporter for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, said she felt some closure because of the 50-to-100-year sentence Bolam received.

"(It's) essentially a life sentence," she explained.

At his sentencing, Bolam was subject to the state's three-strikes law based on two previous felony convictions for attacking women.

Berecky said she is glad to be alive.

"I think every day I am one of the lucky ones," she said.

"But a victim's life is totally changed forever. My life will never be the same."

Karen Harovse Bell's change involves victims' rights. Her sister, Elaine Long, was murdered by Ligonier podiatrist Dr. Karl Long in 1999.

Long, who was convicted of third-degree murder in his wife's death, was sentenced in November to serve five to 10 years in prison -- a sentence Bell called ridiculous.

She said the criminal justice system needs more changes, one in which money and defense attorneys have less say.

Bell also questioned county judges John Driscoll and Rita Hathaway, who were at the forum, about the length of Long's sentence. That sentence has been appealed by District Attorney John Peck.

"It's a murder ... and he might be out in 3 1/2 years because he's a doctor," Bell said.

Driscoll called the sentence handed down by fellow Judge William J. Ober an "aberration" in the annals of county jurisprudence for cases involving murder.

Hathaway added that if Long did not experience justice on earth, he will eventually.

"He will receive justice when he meets his Maker," she said.

Driscoll also advised Bell that she must find a way to discover peace.

During the panel discussion, Peck said that beginning in the 1960s, appeals courts started making rulings that favored defendants. But in the last few years, crime victims are getting more say, he said.

Driscoll agreed about the increased input of victims.

"The victim, in this day and age, is at the table ... and heard," the judge said.

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