July-August 2010

Maneuvering crime victims safely through a minefield

How a prosecution team can guide victims and their families through the often bewildering criminal justice system

For someone who’s never worked in a prosecutor’s office, the justice system can be an intimidating place. The jargon alone is unfamiliar, as are the many twists and turns that any given case can take. Add to it that most innocent victims of crime are there unwillingly, without warning, and because a criminal has hurt them or someone they love, and it’s no surprise that they end up confused and frustrated.

    But a strong prosecution team can guide crime victims and their kin through the minefield of a criminal trial, even one with seemingly insurmountable difficulties and disappointments looming on the horizon. One such team in the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office steered two families through a very difficult punishment trial, and they did it by communicating clearly with their charges. (Read about the whole case starting on the front cover.)

    As they prepared for the punishment trial of Erica Kolanowski, the Tarrant County team—a tightknit group of two prosecutors, an investigator, and a victim assistance coordinator—knew what they were up against. The defendant had no criminal history, showed great remorse for her crime, had quit drinking and was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, pled guilty to both counts, and from the stand begged the jury for probation (for which she was indeed eligible). The Carter and Lundy families (who had buried one son while another was wheelchair-bound) were adamant, however, that Kolanowski serve pen time.

    The prosecution team, therefore, had to walk a delicate balance between what the victims’ families wanted and the sentence a jury could realistically hand down. As Pat Sursely, the victim assistance coordinator, says of her duties to victims: “I don’t want them to be surprised by anything.”

    To that end, Sursely and the team met with the Carter and Lundy families early on as a group, educating them on every aspect of the justice system. “I try to explain the process in each courtroom because each court is different,” Pat says. “I ask them to stand when the jury comes in, not to talk during the trial, and not to show any emotion. I don’t want them to be embarrassed for doing something wrong or for the defendant to have grounds for a mistrial.”

    Families find some parts of the process especially difficult, Pat notes, so she prepares them in advance and reminds them of what’s coming up. Plea bargains, for instance, can be a prickly topic for victims; many of them are reluctant to let their cases plead because they think it means the offender is getting off too easy. Pat explains that most cases end in a plea and that pleas resolve more quickly than going to trial. Plus, even with a plea bargain, victims can still confront the defendant in court, which is what many crime victims want most.

    Once a case ends up in the courtroom, victims and their loved ones face other challenges. The medical examiner’s testimony, for example, is extremely hard for victims’ families to hear, so Pat alerts them when the ME is going to testify so family members can discreetly exit the courtroom if they wish. (The same is true for crime scene photos and their sponsoring witness.) Families also find defense counsel’s cross-examination and closing argument to be offensive, especially when the attorney may blame the victim for some portion of the crime. “But we always tell them it’s a good thing that the defense attorney is vigorously defending their client so there aren’t grounds for mistrial or appeal,” Pat says.

    In the Kolanowski case, Pat and the prosecution team warned the families over and over that the defendant could very well receive probation for her offense. (The Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office had had a handful of such sentences for intoxication mans-laughter cases, including one or two where the victim was an on-duty peace officer.) “Families don’t want probation because they think it’s easy, but probation in Tarrant County is not easy,” Pat says. “We always explain that the judge can put conditions on the probation and that breaking those conditions can mean that the probation is amended or revoked.” Pat also notes that if a defendant gets probation, the victims’ families can follow up with the probation department’s victim liaison to keep tabs on the offender. Plus, families may be notified if there’s ever a hearing to revoke.

    “It always helps victims to be kept informed throughout the process, either by the assistant district attorney or victim assistance coordinator, as we are just a phone call away,” Pat says. “We are here to help them better understand the court process and in doing so will keep their stress to a minimum.”

    In the Kolanowski punishment trial, the State won a 16-year sentence on the intoxication man-slaughter count and 10 years on the intoxication assault charge (to be served concurrently). Not only was the prosecution team pleased, but so were the Carter and Lundy families, who’d been warned that probation was a distinct possibility. Information is power to victims, who already feel a loss of control because of the crime, then enter the justice system where they have little input in any decision making. The Tarrant County team approach gives victims empowering information. Working together, prosecutors and coordinators make sure victims know that while there are no guarantees, we hope there won’t be any surprises.