Reflecting on their journey through the criminal justice system

Mark Odom

Deputy Director of the Victim Services Division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ)

What victims have to say about the judicial process years after they’ve gone through a criminal trial

In the summer of 1997, I remember sitting on the porch of our family’s ranch visiting with my father, Wendell Odom, about my new position working for the Victim Services Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). I had spent the previous 10 years working for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles as a parole officer and later as a parole revocation hearing officer. It was always easy visiting with my father about criminal justice. He was a retired judge who had served for over 25 years in the Harris County and District Courts and then later with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin. As I was explaining the programs that were then available to crime victims, as well as new programs that were developing to assist victims, he commented to me, “Well, it’s about time.”

   He reflected back to his days in the Harris County district courts in the 1960s and remembered how difficult and profoundly moving it was to observe victims of violent crime having to endure the legal process. Before the Texas Legislature adopted the first Crime Victim Bill of Rights in 1985, victims had little or no opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process. But since then, the victim rights movement has advanced exponentially in Texas and nationally. The conversation we had that night was an eye-opener for both of us.

Advances in ­victim services

When I first started in this field, the victims were often very critical of the judicial process. They would say that they were treated like evidence and with little consideration. For example, they often had to sit near the offender’s family or friends in the halls of the district courts while waiting to testify. They felt left out of the process, having no one to ask when they were confused about sentencing or excluded from court hearings or plea agreements.

    Now, more often than not, I hear stories of victim advocacy and an improved sense of inclusion and participation. District attorney’s offices and the victim assistance coordinators (VACs), as well as advocates throughout the state, should be commended for the work they have done to assist victims through a very difficult time in their lives. Victims will always remember the assistance they received as well as the difficulties and anxieties surrounding their involvement in the process. Also, victims of violent crime teach us about human spirit, tenacity, and resilience. Victims’ stories on their experiences are deeply moving for all of us. Victims not only talk about the crime and devastating aftermath, they often relate back to their journey through the judicial process.

What victims say about the system

For the purposes of this article I reached out to three amazing women; I had the honor of meeting and working with them through our various programs at TDCJ Victim Services. When victims are working with our office after the trial has concluded they are often very reflective, amazingly strong, poignant, and at times even humorous. Their thoughts about the judicial process can give us significant insight. I want to thank them for their willingness to share their reflections. (Please note that they all gave me permission to share their stories here.)

    Monika was shot by her ex-husband in 2004. When I asked her to reflect back on the trial, she had these thoughts:

    “With regards to having a victim’s advocate, I don’t think I could have made it through the pre-trial, trial, or post-trial without her. She was someone who made me feel safe in a very scary situation. Having to be anywhere in the vicinity of the person who assaulted me, much less in the same building or room, was terrifying but, with her by my side, I knew nothing was going to happen to me. She was willing to do anything to make sure I felt safe. She helped me feel confident and reassured me through every step of the process. I can’t say enough about how valuable having her by my side was to me.

    “As far as the actual trial, there are a few things that I think about often. While I was completely confident about telling the details of what happened to me, I don’t think enough time was spent in preparing me for certain aspects of testifying. This was completely new to me. I had never testified in court before. I had no idea that I, the victim, would be personally attacked by the defense attorney. That may sound naïve, but I wasn’t prepared for it at all. I think victims need to be reminded that, no matter the circumstances, it’s the defense attorney’s job to do whatever it takes to make sure his client isn’t found guilty, even if that means vilifying the victim. It was a very painful lesson to learn from the witness stand.

    “The other part about the trial that has really weighed heavy on me is the fact that I didn’t look at the jury when I was testifying. I was advised to look at the jurors when I answered questions but, for whatever reason, I was very uncomfortable doing so and I really don’t think I looked at them even once. I often wonder if that made them doubt me in any way. That bothers me tremendously. If I had looked at them as I should have, maybe they would have returned with a longer sentence. I don’t know if my lack of eye contact with the jurors had any influence on their decisions or not but it is certainly something that keeps me awake at night, wondering if they had any doubt regarding the truthfulness of my words.”

    Some victims struggle with life after the trial. They are often faced with the notion that they need to move on or find meaning. Elizabeth, who was sexually assaulted in 1992, wrote about her thoughts and feelings five years after the trial:

    “I struggle very much with the problem of getting on with my life. I have not stagnated: I’ve gotten engaged to a wonderful man, I quit my clerical job and moved to England for seven months, and I am completing my degree. But I still find that one of the hardest things for me to do is begin allowing and looking for meaning in my life again. Sometimes what I grant meaning to seems artificial, arbitrary. Other times I’m too afraid of the meaning being stripped away again. Giving things meaning requires trust in a ‘normal’ course of events, some feeling of security in my life. It’s admitting that I’m leaving behind the rape—and if I do that, aren’t I saying it’s not so bad after all, if I can recover from it? Doesn’t that lessen its awfulness? It almost seems like a betrayal of my pain and of all other women who have been raped.

    “I asked in my victim impact statement that the members of the parole board remember, when determining whether to vote for his release, that his crime was not committed on February 22, 1992—it began on that day. As the months go by and the date of the rape gets further away, I realize with greater depth how true those words are.”

    In 1998 Debra’s husband, Nino, was shot and killed; she was raped, kidnapped, and held captive for five days. She had similar experiences and feelings as Monika and Elizabeth about the judicial process. In her book Shattered, Reclaiming a Life Torn Apart by Violence, she had these thoughts immediately after the trial:

    “Relief is what I think I should feel. Maybe later it’ll hit me—the feeling of completion, a sense of justice won. But now I am vaguely dissatisfied. Yes, we did what we came here to do. The result was not as good as I had hoped, but if I try hard enough, I know I can make it be enough.”

    Later she writes:

    “Even now, long after the crime, with the trial over and [the defendant] in jail forever, few people ask me what went on during those five days. I know they’re curious, so I have to conclude that they avoid the subject out of respect for me. What they don’t realize is that even years after the crime, many victims find it therapeutic to talk about the experience. As for me, if someone is willing to listen, I’ll never shut up.”

    As victim advocates we have learned that often by being present or just listening to victims talk about the crime and the aftermath, we provide important advocacy and support. Often, if we can provide this support without judgment and without offering reasons or solutions, listening itself can be the answer.

Two areas of confusion

Many victims choose to stay involved with the criminal justice process long after the trial. Most stay connected through our Victim Notification System. Often, as in the case of plea bargains, they are burdened with lingering questions about the crime or the offender. Victims may ask: “Does he admit guilt?” “What really happened?” or “Is he sorry for what he did?” They may seek out the answers by requesting to meet with the offender through the mediation program. For victims who choose to receive information about their offender after the trial, it is essential that district attorney’s offices and advocates provide information about post-conviction victim services. Many victims, for example, are shocked when they receive the first notification that the offender responsible for their victimization is being considered for release by the parole board. Our staff works closely with victims explaining sentencing and parole eligibility, as well as their right to protest. After sentencing, it is important for VACs and prosecutors to explain to them how long the offender will be in prison before he/she becomes eligible for parole.

    Another significant area of confusion evolves around the Victim Impact Statement (VIS). The VIS is a form provided by the VAC in a prosecutor’s office a crime victim fills out to detail and record the emotional and psychological impact, physical injury, and economic loss a crime has had on her and her family members. This form is important, as it is considered by law enforcement agencies, court personnel, probation departments, the TDCJ Victim Services Division, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in many stages of the criminal justice system, including the court system and the parole review process. When we ask victims if they completed a VIS, they often confuse the written document with the verbal impact statement or allocution given after the sentencing phase of trial.

Conclusion

If my father were still with us today, he would be amazed and proud of the advances in the victim services field in the past 15 years. Crime victims and advocates should be commended for a social movement that was born out of a need to seek changes. Those of us who are in system-based programs must continually strive to build on the past successes while working to improve services by listening to the needs of the victims and improving access to programs and services.