July-August 2008

How do you keep victims in the loop on what’s happening in their cases?

Editor’s note: 

This new column, The Way We See It, is based on TDCAA ­members’ input. In every issue, we’ll ask for your office’s ­perspective on a legal, investigative, or ­administrative topic, and you can e-mail the ­editor  at wolf@tdcaa .com with your response. Put “The Way We See It” in the message’s subject line, and keep your response under 500 words.

For the next topic, tell us how the ­legislature’s changes to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) have changed the way your office treats ­juvenile cases. We’ll print a sampling of answers in the next issue. 

Jill Hargrove, VAC in Bell County

When we send out the initial letter to victims, we say several times it is their responsibility to request notification. We include a final sentence stating if we do not hear from them, we will assume they do not want to be notified.

Both victim advocates in our office are assigned by even or odd DA numbers, and when we receive a request for notification, the VAC assigned to that case adds it to her docket. When the attorneys get setting letters, the advocate assigned to that case gets a copy of that letter so we can update our docket and notify the victim. We prepare victims from the beginning that there will be numerous settings before we go to court so not to just show up—always call ahead.

Nancy Holmes Ghigna, VAC in Montgomery County

I am honest and upfront from the beginning with victims, and I tell them to forget any ideas of what should happen with their case. There will be numerous docket settings that they are welcome to attend, but they can always call me after docket for a recap. If their presence is required, our office will notify them. If they can’t afford to miss work or it’s a hardship to attend, they should save their time for a trial or plea.

Our coordinators in felony cases contact all “crimes against a person” victims prior to the docket setting as a reminder. Misdemeanor coordinators don’t have that luxury because of the sheer volume of cases, but if there will be a plea on an injury case, they will call. Of course, all victims are notified about the VINE program, and anyone is welcome to call us for an update.

Ellen Halbert, VAC in Travis County

When we talk to victims, we tell them we cannot call about every court setting, but we educate them about how they can find out the date of each setting. We tell them to call us a couple of days after a setting for information.

Some prosecutors let us know what happened at each setting—if it was important—and some don’t. However, we have a computer system where we can look up a case to check on its status. It’s called FACTS, and it has a history of the case as it pertains to court. It shows court settings, resets, when the defendant was indicted, all about bond—that kind of thing. There are no narratives, but we can get that info (if needed) from the prosecutor.

If a case has an important hearing, a plea has been offered, or there is a possible trial date, counselors always call the victims for an update. Sometimes we can handle issues over the phone but if not, we set up meetings so the victim can talk to the prosecutor. In our office, we have a victim counselor for each court who works closely with victims and prosecutors.

Cynthia Jahn, VAC in Bexar County

Always be honest with a victim or family member. I give them an idea of the worst possible scenario and help them understand that that may be the reality of their case. If it is not, then everything looks brighter; if it is, then they are not blindsided. Always tell them that the reality of the system is not portrayed on TV. In fact, it’s nothing like TV, which is usually their only reference for what they are about to undergo.

All of our advocates make it a priority to contact our victims (at least in the person-on-person crimes) by the first docket setting. We explain the basic timeline and how long it can take to get a case through the system. We explain what a docket call is and how busy and confusing it can be. Some folks really want to be there. This usually lasts for one docket call. When they realize that they have to take off from work, pay for parking, can’t even find a seat in the courtroom, and realize that the prosecutor is too busy to talk with them, they would much rather rely on the advocate to call and give them updates on the next setting. Advocates call and/or subpoena each victim and witness on every case to get ready on the docket. They also call back on many cases and let them know when it is reset. As the case moves up on the docket, we begin to alert the victims that their case is getting close to the time when it may be selected for trial.

Allan Hubbard, VAC in Lamar County

I just straight up tell them that some hearings are formalities that can take 30 seconds or less and that they might wait three or four hours only to discover the defense attorney is not present or asked for a pass or continuance. I always tell victims they are never bothering me, that they can just call and find out what happened in a hearing; if there’s no new information to tell, I will say so.

I call victims on cases where they need to be aware of possibilities (bond reductions, etc.). A calendar in our copy room makes everyone aware of what’s coming up and keeps me in constant communication with prosecutors (as we’re a small office—only five attorneys). Our prosecutors make much use of my office to contact and play “good cop” with victims so they’ve come to rely on me and keep me in the loop on case and trial prep.