September-October 2010

Not just assistance for victims

Your friendly office victim services coordinator can also help prosecutors. Here’s how it works in one office.

Kathy Dixon

Victim Assistance Coordinator in the 33rd and 424th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Llano County

We victim assistance coordinators (VACs) often talk about how we help crime victims, but do we ever talk about how we help the prosecutors in our offices? VACs are a valuable resource for prosecutors; some prosecutors say they cannot imagine working victim cases without a VAC.

    Our office’s Victim Services division consists of just two of us, me and Susie Miller. We work with victims prior to indictment, so we know how the victims have reacted to the crime, the extent of their trauma (whether emotional or physical), and whatever financial loss they have experienced. This information is not on the offense report, but it is valuable to a prosecutor as he screens a case for grand jury.

    Locating victims is also a valuable resource to prosecutors. Victims often move many times without notifying our office, and it would be time-consuming if a prosecutor had to track down victims from the address in the offense report. We use many resources, such as Regional Organized Crime Information Center, to locate victims. In the event a victim cannot be found, we can document it if court proceedings cannot be delayed, thus complying with a victim’s right to be notified concerning proceedings.

    In our office, victim services makes all the travel arrangements for victims as well as other witnesses who live out of the county and must travel to court for a jury trial. Our four-county jurisdiction is 60-plus miles from the nearest airport in Austin, so coordinating travel is no small feat. We obtain the witnesses’ airline tickets, rental cars, and motel reservations and gather the receipts to submit the paperwork to the comptroller’s office so witnesses and the county can get reimbursed. Prosecutors never have to worry that we cannot get a witness here for a jury trial. What a valuable resource when that witness could be the one that will make the case!

    By the time a case is ready for jury trial, we have been working with the victims for a year or more. They have confidence in us and trust we will guide them through the judicial process. When we set up an appointment for the prosecutor to meet with the victim, it is a smooth transition. Even though our office has a division dedicated to victims, the DA’s policy is that no one—no attorney, investigator, or other personnel—may refuse to talk to a victim; it is truly a team effort.

    The prosecutor knows the office has established contact with the victim and that the victim knows what to expect from the system and is willing to cooperate in the judicial process. By this time, the victim, we hope, has undergone voluntary counseling and has received crime victims’ compensation through the Attorney General’s Office to pay for lost wages and mileage when they miss work to meet with the prosecutor. Our division initiates both the counseling and compensation processes.

    If the State decides to offer a plea instead of going to trial, we explain the plea offer to the victim or, if the plea is too complicated, we are at least present when the ADA gives an explanation. Victims usually accept the plea because they trust that the DA’s office knows how to handle their case; they understand from the beginning that the decision is ultimately up to the DA’s office but that their input will be taken into consideration. They know that victim services will notify them if there is a violation of the terms and conditions of probation, and they understand that a guilty plea versus a jury trial could be a good thing for their case.

    During the jury trial, we take care of the victim and their family, whether in the waiting room or courtroom, so that prosecutors can concentrate on the trial and know that the victim will be there to testify when the time comes. If the victim is upset after testifying, we are there to calm them down. When it is time for the verdict, we get everyone to the courtroom, prepare them for the verdict, and make them aware that it could go either way. If there is a guilty verdict, the prosecutor can meet with the family and receive the well-deserved praise and thanks. If there is an acquittal, the prosecutor and victim services can console. It is a team effort between victim services and the prosecutor to coordinate a jury trial and take care of everyone involved.

    After the disposition of a case, the victim feels that justice has been served. Our mission statement is, “Treat all victims with dignity, compassion, and respect while providing services related to their needs and rights as an individual who is a victim of crime.” We work with victims and prosecutors to see that this is done.

    Our elected district attorney, Sam Oatman, believes his victim services division is one of the most valuable assets in his office. “Victims can be a good voice or a bad voice affecting your office, especially if you are elected and in a small jurisdiction,” Oatman says, “but most importantly, victims deserve that special attention.”