September-October 2013

A very special victim

Diane Taylor (not her real name) was 27 years old when she was sexually assaulted by Ronald Coleman. Coleman was a driver who shuttled her and several others home after spending the day at Dayhab, where Diane learns life skills and community integration. Coleman evaded arrest for more than a year but was finally picked up in March 2011.
    It is an honor to share my involvement with Diane throughout the case. After the case was filed, we set up a victim meeting at our office with her and her mom. It was an opportunity to get to know the victim, meet her family, go over the grand jury process, discuss the Attorney General’s Crime Victim Compensation Program, and address any questions or concerns they had. We also wanted them to see our victim assistance waiting area, which is a large room filled with comfortable sofas, a TV, a computer, lots of board games, coloring books, a refrigerator, and a microwave for victims and their families who must be here for trial.
    Before going into the victim meeting, I was told that Diane is 27 years old and is considered mildly retarded with a 4-year-old’s mentality. I was also told she lives with her mother, Audrey (also not her real name), who is her caregiver.

The first meeting
When I initially met Diane, my first thought was that she has great taste in clothes. She had on a long-sleeved white blouse, vest, and long, Western-style denim skirt with a pair of low-heeled cowboy boots—very Fort-Worth-cowboy chic! She is a true fashionista with a sense of humor and a bit of silliness—I immediately felt connected to her. She had brought a bag full of notepads and pens because Diane enjoys writing. She knows how to write her name and knows the letters of the alphabet.
    Our initial meeting included assistant criminal district attorney Nikki Nickols. Nikki conducted the meeting, gathering information from Audrey about Diane’s disability and her day-to-day routine. Then she gingerly interviewed Diane regarding the sexual assault in the car with Mr. Coleman, to which Diane responded consistently. She would say, “I have a voice. I have a voice.” I could tell Audrey instills self-worth and value in her daughter and has shown her unconditional love, filling Diane’s world with Scripture, spiritual songs, and spiritual direction.
    Once the case got indicted, it was transferred to assistant district attorney Heather Davenport, whose professionalism and gentle techniques in dealing with victims who have special needs are commendable. We had several meetings with Diane and Audrey before trial began. During one of them, we took them to the courtroom and did some role-playing. We put Diane in the witness chair so she would know where to sit. We explained where the judge would sit, where the jury would be, and where prosecutors Heather Davenport and Bill Vassar would be sitting. Heather asked Diane some basic questions (not about the case), such as when is her birthday, what is her stuffed doggie’s name, etc. What I appreciate most about our prosecutors is their sensitivity to our victims by involving victim assistants in this process. It gives victims reassurance and continuity to see a familiar face so they can feel comfortable, and it also establishes a good foundation of trust.

First day of trial
On the first day of trial, Audrey and Diane came to our victims’ waiting area. Audrey brought some snacks for Diane—she has a major sweet tooth, it turns out. When it was time to go upstairs to court, Audrey had to stay behind because she was a witness and could not be in the courtroom. So before Diane testified, I told her I would be in the courtroom to support her. We hugged, and I told her she was brave and courageous and I was proud of her. I told her the most important thing to remember is to tell the truth. She said she was ready and repeated, “I have a voice,” and gave me another hug.
    She did great on the stand when Heather questioned her. She charmed the jury with her innocence and her communication style, which was similar to that of a young child. The defense attorney, David Richards, was a bit harsh trying to confuse Diane during cross-examination. For example, Mr. Richards asked the bailiffs to gather some chairs in the area below Judge George Gallagher’s bench to re-create the seating arrangement of the car where the sexual assault took place. He asked her some tricky questions where all he got was a blank stare and several seconds of silence because she wasn’t processing the question. On the questions that mattered the most, though, Diane did not waiver. She knew what the defendant did to her, whichever way the defense asked the questions.
    When Diane was through with her testimony, she came down to my office. She stayed with me while her mother testified. This is when I found out Diane has a sweet tooth. She had brought a toy stuffed dog from home. This dog has a secret compartment that was filled with candy she took from the other victim assistance coordinators’ offices! I had introduced her to the other ladies in our office and they were gracious in offering her sweets from their candy dishes. Diane would smile, take a handful, and then stuff the candy in her (already stuffed) dog. By the end of the day, her dog was full of sweets! She told me, “Shhh, don’t tell my mom!” Of course, I had to tell Audrey, for one because it was funny, but also because I did not want to get blamed if Diane shows up at her next dentist appointment with a cavity.
    I kept Diane occupied by having her color and write on notepads. After all the witnesses testified and both sides rested and gave closing arguments, we came down to the victim assistance area and waited patiently for the verdict. Audrey is a woman of faith; she had been the pillar of faith by standing firm that justice would prevail. She was also glad that Diane finally was able to “have a voice” in all of this.
    After many hours of deliberation from the jury, it could not reach a verdict, and the trial ended with a hung jury. Disappointing, yes, but not a loss. Heather and Bill talked to Audrey about whether to retry the case, and Audrey was adamant that she wanted another trial, but we were concerned with how difficult it might be for Diane to take the stand again. Heather and Bill sent Diane and Audrey home with the hope that we would meet again soon to discuss the future of the case. After several weeks, Audrey called and said she talked to Diane and that she wanted to testify again. So we had a second trial.

The second trial
Several months later, the first day of the second trial rolled around, and in walked Ms. Fashionista. This time, instead of cowboy chic, Diane went simple and sophisticated. She had on a beautiful silk skirt suit in slate blue and low-heeled black sandals. She looked so amazing! I told her how well-dressed she looked and I couldn’t wait to see what she was going to wear the next day. Of course her goodie bag filled with notepads and pens were in tow. Her mom allowed her to bring her karaoke machine to pass the time while she waited to testify. I checked with our director of victim assistance, Blanca Burciaga, to see if that was OK, and we came to an agreement that Diane could use her karaoke machine in my office as long as we kept the volume low. Diane sang me a beautiful worship song and asked me to sing along. I know she liked the karaoke machine because of all the buttons and lights on the front of it.
    Diane did another exceptional job testifying. The defense (same defense attorney as at the first trial) got demonstrative again and had the bailiffs re-create that same car seating scenario with the chairs. Unlike in the first trial, he asked Diane to step down from the witness stand and sit down where she was in the car on the day of the sexual assault. It was not looking good for the State because the defense attorney got Diane confused. (Apparently, Diane had moved sitting positions during the course of that day while passengers were getting dropped off.) But again, on the most important part she did not falter: She was clear that Mr. Coleman touched her and even licked his finger afterward—and she held her finger up for the jury to see. It was a very compelling moment, raw and innocent to the core, especially given Diane’s mental capacity, that she was able to describe in detail what he did to her and how it made her feel. Several jurors were brought to tears during her testimony.
    After Diane testified, she came back to my office, where her playful personality kicked into high gear. She brought laughter and sweetness. We talked about our families and what kind of activities we enjoy: my love for tennis and her love for her dog and playing on her keyboard. I have a Rubik’s cube on my desk that shows pictures of several hot spots in San Francisco (where I grew up), so I pointed out what I knew about the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, cable cars, and the famous Lombard Street, which is the most crooked street in the country. She listened with interest and plugged in a few comments of her own.
    After both sides rested, we all went in for closing arguments, and after several hours, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. Although the judge asked the gallery to hold its composure during the reading of the verdict, I held Diane’s hand and she squeezed it real hard. Her mother and I both knew that justice was served that day.
    Afterward, we met behind the courtroom and Audrey broke down in tears filled with gratitude for all the hard work the prosecutors put into the case. After sentencing, the jury gave the defendant 12 years in prison. Diane and Audrey were happy that the defendant was going to prison. Diane gave a short allocution—just “He hurt me”—after sentencing, and I could tell in her demeanor that she felt good about herself. She told me before they left our victim assistance area that “the truth will set you free.”
    What an inspiration and an encouraging way to end the trial! Diane is a true testament that even a disabled crime victim can step forward, be courageous in a very scary situation, and come out of it as an overcomer.

What I learned
What I would like to pass on to other victim assistance coordinators dealing with disabled or special-needs victims is to find a common interest with the victim and run with it. I was told once by a very special person that “they’re gonna tell you in their time and in their way.” Not all disabled crime victims are forthcoming with what happened to them, so it takes time. It may require several meetings for them to open up, but it is worth it in the end to be patient. When we sincerely take the time to get to know special-needs victims as people and then help them in the criminal justice process, they have a better understanding of what to expect, and their anxiety will diminish over time.
    Diane and I shared similar interests. We both like fashion and we both like to sing. We both “made a joyful noise” while waiting during the trial when she brought her karaoke machine into my office. Diane was also taking piano lessons, and I love to listen to solo piano music while working. Because we had several interests in common, we forged a bond during our time together, making her journey through the trial that much easier.
    It’s wise to keep the context simple. We all know that the trial process can be overwhelming not only to a victim (whether disabled or not) but also to her family. The prosecutors handle the details of the case, and victim assistants tend to the victim’s needs. Depending on the disability or special needs, an age-appropriate discussion with the victim about courtroom etiquette and what to expect in trial will help make her a better witness for the State. The more time we invest in the victim, the more she will feel empowered and encouraged.
    Also, take the time to go out into the community and meet the people in charge of these programs that assist our crime victims. They are the ones that work closely with our victims, whether for counseling, financial assistance, job skill training, or finding housing. Tarrant County has a wealth of resources. For example, I have met the founders of the Disabled Crime Victim Assistance here in Fort Worth. They go above and beyond to assist victims with CVC and other financial assistance needs. They also do court accompaniment and a host of other selfless acts to make sure the victims and their families are taken care of. I have also toured the Battered Women Foundation in North Richland Hills to see firsthand what victims and their children go through. Having been to these places, I can visualize them and in turn share this information with the victim so she knows what to expect.
    I would also like to encourage victim assistance coordinators to talk with the parents or guardians of sexual assault victims, especially those with a disability or special needs, to watch their demeanor after trial. See if they withdraw, become depressed, or are just not themselves. It would benefit their loved one to meet with a counselor to decompress. Make a follow-up call to see how the victim is doing a week or so after the trial.
    Although I have worked with disabled and special-needs victims before, Diane made a long-lasting impression on me. A quote from the movie As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson, comes to mind when I think about her. In the film, he tells Helen Hunt, who plays his love interest, “You make me want to be a better man.” Diane has set the bar for me in working with disabled victims. I strive to give every such victim I work with my attention, care, and concern. That’s the kind of attention I would want for my child if I had to go through this process.