Prosecutors’ sensitivity toward crime victims

Recently, at our TDCAA Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update in Corpus Christi, I had the privilege of visiting with former TDCAA Research Attorney (our former coworker) Jon English.
    Last spring, Jon took a job as a prosecutor in the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Galveston County. While we hated to see Jon leave TDCAA, we were all thrilled for him to have the opportunity to prosecute cases.
    At the Annual seminar, Jon was eager to tell us about prosecuting his first jury trial involving a crime victim. As I listened to him recount his steps in trying the case, it was so very refreshing to hear a young prosecutor express how difficult a trial must be for crime victims and his true concern for this one in particular. The victim testifying in Jon’s case was an adult, but many years before (when she was a child), she had been the victim of abuse and had had to testify against her offender in court. The defense attorney (in this most recent case) had carelessly asked a question about the victim’s prior involvement in the criminal justice system—which would’ve required her to tell a bunch of strangers (people in the courtroom) about the earlier trial and her painful abuse.
    But Jon (such a quick thinker!) would not have it. He quickly piped up with an objection, preventing this witness from having to go through the ordeal of telling the story of her abuse yet again. As the prosecuting attorney, Jon alone had the ability to stand up for that victim in that moment—a VAC couldn’t have done what Jon did in open court. And I was so glad he was there to protect this woman who was already pretty fragile.    
    Jon knew that there are certain ethical limitations between the association of prosecutors and crime victims, but it was also clear that he shared in the victim’s emotions with genuine human understanding. “Shared emotions” are a very important element when it comes to crime victims. If a victim has an opportunity to share her emotions with the prosecutor, then the two can become jointly committed to their respective roles in a case.
    In my past working experience, I actually had a prosecutor say to me once, “Victims, schmictims—I can’t be bothered. I have a job to do.” But when talking to Jon, I saw a different attitude. Our interaction inspired me to hope that the old attitude of “victims schmictims” might be changing to one of compassion—prosecutors devoting more time to understanding where the victim is right now in her life and allowing an in-person meeting with the prosecutor (especially in death cases) when possible.
     In researching background information on prosecutor-victim sensitivity, I located a journal article outlining a research study conducted and supported by a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice. Below, I’ve shared with you highlights of the study I found interesting in regards to prosecutor-victim sensitivity.
    The study included 32 grieving victims whose loved ones were murdered between 1994 and 1999 in Union County (a pseudonym) and published in the spring of 2013 in the Law & Social Inquiry, a journal of the American Bar Association.1 Twenty of the 32 bereaved victims had met in-person with a county prosecutor, and these 20 participants were the primary source of victim data in the study.
    Researcher Sarah Goodrum explained that some of the data came from bereaved victims’ responses to questions about the criminal justice system in general and the local district attorney’s office in particular. These questions included:
    1)    What was the most difficult part of the district attorney’s office’s involvement in this case for you?
    2)    What was the most positive part of the district attorney’s office’s involvement in the case for you?
    3)    If you could change anything about the way the district attorney’s office worked with you, what would you change?
    The study showed that participants “shared emotions” when they met in-person with the prosecutors, and that sharing built a connection between the crime victims and prosecutors and improved victims’ experiences with the criminal justice system.
    The grieving victims in the study wanted a prosecutor who understood—and even shared—their devastating grief over a loved one’s murder. When asked what the prosecutor did to make their experiences with the criminal justice system easier for them, 17 of the 20 bereaved victims (85 percent) who met with a prosecutor mentioned the prosecutor’s heartfelt compassion for them and their deceased loved one.
    Although Article 56.02 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure affords crime victims their legal rights, it is not always a given that the crime victim will have the opportunity for “shared emotions” with a prosecutor. However, the study found that prosecutors often honored victims’ desire for interaction with the prosecutor and considered their input on case decisions.
    I have found in my past work experience, victim assistance coordinators (VACs) can act as a liaison between prosecutors and crime victims to create necessary boundaries during the judicial process. During early interaction with victims, the VAC must explain:
•    what role the prosecutor plays in the case;
•    that the prosecutor represents the State and is not the victim’s private attorney;
•    that the information the victim shares with the VAC must be relayed to the prosecutor; and
•    that the crime victim’s wishes for the outcome of the case will be relayed to the prosecutor but ultimately it is the State’s case, the prosecutor represents the State, and there are never any guarantees of the outcome.
    My wish is for prosecutors, victim assistance coordinators, and court staff to not be so quick to judge crime victims, to take a step backward and put themselves in the victim’s shoes, and to try to understand her feelings and respect her unfortunate situation. After all, we at any given time could be faced with some of their same circumstances through no doing of our own. Try to look at it this way: Each case is an opportunity to invest in a person’s life. Yes, we want to put the bad guy (or gal) away, but win or lose the case, we want to make sure the victim knows she was supported and her emotions were shared during her interaction with the criminal justice system.
    After Jon had told me about his first trial, I thanked him for his compassion and understanding for the crime victim and told him it was my hope for the next generation of young prosecutors to be as empathetic as he was while carrying out their duties as prosecutors. As it says in the Scriptures, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.  Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8 [NASB])
Free training
on protective orders
All year, we have been training people on protective orders for free. Our last such training in 2015 will be in conjunction with our Elected Prosecutor Conference on Wednesday, December 2, from 10 a.m. until noon at the La Cantera Resort in San Antonio. The training covers the differences between statutorily available types of protective orders (including final protective orders, emergency orders and temporary ex parte orders); jurisdiction for each of these types of orders; additional measures of protections for victims, such as safety planning, community resources, and conditions of bond; working with other stakeholders—including local law enforcement, state agencies, and nonprofits—for victim safety and restoration; and prosecuting violation of protective order and bond cases.
    All attendees will receive a free copy of a protective order manual, including sample forms and documents on a CD. To register for this seminar, check the appropriate box on the online registration page of the Elected Prosecutor Conference, www .tdcaa.com/training.

In-office VAC visits
I recently visited the Kendall County Attorney’s Office in Boerne to assist with victim services (see the photo below). Assistant County Attorney Nicole Bishop contacted me by email, we arranged a convenient date for their office, and I traveled to Boerne. New VAC Michelle Jurica was only weeks into her position, and it was truly inspiring to spend the day in that office visiting with staff and introducing Michelle to our mandated duties as VACs as set out in the Code of Criminal Procedure.
    TDCAA’s Victim Services Project offers in-office support to the victim services programs in prosecutor’s offices. We at TDCAA realize the majority of VACs in prosecutor’s offices across Texas are the only people in their offices responsible for developing victim services programs and compiling information to send to crime victims as required by Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. We realize VACs may not have anyone locally to turn to for advice and at times could use assistance or moral support.
    Please email me at Jalayne [email protected] for inquiries or support or to schedule an in-office consultation.

Endnote

1  Goodrum, S. (2013). Bridging the gap between prosecutors’ cases and victims’ biographies in the criminal justice system through shared emotions. Law & Social Inquiry, 38(2), 257-287. doi:10.1111/lsi.12020.