Victims of crime have found a champion
She wouldn’t stop.
Edith Surgan was a woman possessed, organized and articulate, and energetic to a point where it was difficult, if not impossible, to say no to her.
Surgan and her husband, Philip, moved to Albuquerque in 1976 and began to shake things up – including the most powerful officials in the state – by championing the cause of victims of violent crime with its story, its speeches, her charisma and her words, spread out on an old portable typewriter on her kitchen table.
I have been fortunate to know many champions of victims of crime. Pat Carristo. Joan Shirley. Lois Duncan. Sandy Dietz. Terry Huertaz. Nadine Milford. Linda Atkinson. Patty March. Robin BrulÃ©. And so many other parents who have turned their grief into advocacy.
Until recently, I hadn’t heard of Surgan, but learned that she is worth knowing. Let me introduce you to this spitfire, arguably the first in New Mexico to advocate for the rights and redress of victims of crime and their families.
“I know what it’s like to be a victim,” she said in one of her many speeches. âI know what it’s like to be avoided, to feel like what happened was your own fault, even if it’s not true. I know what it looks like. “
For her, it all started on a cold November night in 1974 when her only daughter was stabbed to death on her college campus in Long Island, New York, by a man she described as an “escaped mental patient.”
Helen Surgan was 19 years old.
It took 27-year-old Gerald Melton six years to be treated, at least enough to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and then be sent back to a mental hospital.
The pain and ordeal was so relentless that the Surgans left Tenafly, New Jersey, landing in Albuquerque two years after their daughter’s death.
But pain followed Edith. So she channeled that pain into the typewriter that had been her daughter’s high school graduation gift. She typed volumes of letters to the editor, judges, prosecutors, parole board members and lawmakers about the absurdity of the law, offering many rights to criminals, but almost none to victims.
She wrote frequently for the Journal. In August 1979, she protested against an article published in the newspaper about armed robber Michael “Red” Brown, who became a model prisoner and author of books behind bars in California.
“In all of the reporting, there was not a word about the victim of the many crimes committed by Red Brown,” she wrote. âYes, all justice is for the criminals. None are for the victims. The victims are forgotten and ignored.
Soon his words became speeches, and his speeches became deeds.
âThe person who does these things is helped,â she told one group. âThis person is getting legal help. He can get psychiatric help. They have rehabilitation programs. All of this is done with taxpayers’ money. And not a penny is given to the victims. The state must deal with offenders. We are aware of this and we do not regret the money that has to be spent on it. But doing nothing for the people who really and truly are innocent victims of crime just doesn’t make sense. “
In 1978, she founded the Crime Victims Assistance Organization, a support group and advocate for victims’ rights.
Among those who joined were sisters Carole Chavez RaÃ«l and Sandra Carver, whose father was shot dead in 1976 in a robbery by a farm worker he had sometimes hired for odd jobs.
Frank Chavez was the original owner of the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, which is home to the famous green chili cheeseburger. He was killed in his house behind the Owl.
âEdith was awesome,â said RaÃ«l. âShe was tireless and organized, and she always told us what we needed to do to convince lawmakers of the need to change the system. “
In 1981, Surgan, the sisters, and other members convinced lawmakers to pass a bill establishing the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission, which provides monetary compensation to victims. Governor Bruce King appointed Surgan the commission’s first chairperson.
Surgan and his group continued to push for what were then revolutionary rights for victims of crime, including increased compensation, the provision of impact statements to judges before sentencing, the restriction of profits that an accused can achieve through the sale of books or film rights, and the requirement that victims be notified if the accused is released.
Even breast cancer hasn’t slowed Surgan down, Rael said.
“She told us about the diagnosis, so we knew that from the start,” she said. “But she kept going, kept organizing herself.”
By 1984, it was clear that cancer treatments had not worked.
“She was getting weaker day by day,” said Rael. âBut she wouldn’t stop. She was still making calls until the end.
Surgan died on July 16, 1984. She was 62 years old.
Each year, the National Organization for Victims of Crime presents the Edith Surgan Prize, an honor for her and for the person who advocates for victims of crime.
But her real legacy is the trail she has mapped out for those who refuse to let her work stop.
UpFront is a front page news and opinion column. Contact Joline at 730-2793, [email protected], Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.