Karla Hackett, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Grayson County
Her name was Lily. She was tiny, probably not even 5 feet tall. While walking one morning, she was abducted by two young men, both of whom raped her repeatedly. In the end she was lucky (if you could call it that) because they dumped her in a field outside of town. She was naked with her hair hacked off—but alive. It was the kind of crime that outrages prosecutors and makes us salivate with the thought of putting such animals in prison for a long time.
My officers were worried about Lily. She hadn’t cried. Not when the stranger gave her a ride home, not when the police came to her house, not during the SANE exam, and not during our preliminary meetings with her in the DA’s office. We were all worried about her.
When the first trial was set, she sat in my office with me. I looked at her and my heart hurt. She was only 15. Her parents were of Asian descent and didn’t speak English. They refused to acknowledge what had happened to their daughter, and they did not come with her for any part of the case or trial. Instead, she had someone drop her off at our office, even refusing our offer to pick her up and take her home.
When I started to prep her for trial, she had no problem telling me what had happened. She sat across the desk from me with no expression on her face. She hadn’t forgotten any of it and told it to me as if it had happened to someone else. I explained to her what would happen in the courtroom, made sure she knew that one of the defendants would be in the room when she testified, and outlined how I would ask her my questions.
I asked her if she had any questions of me, and she said no. Then, finally, a single tear spilled down her cheek. She looked at me and said she didn’t want to testify and that I must think she was a coward. I told her she was the bravest person I had ever met. Then I cried. (No one cries alone in my office!) I promised her that I would try to get guilty pleas from the defendants, but if they demanded a trial, there was nothing I could do about it. She thanked me and said that if I weren’t able to get them to plead guilty, to let her know when to come to court for the trial. I cried some more, but she didn’t.
I pushed hard for those guilty pleas. All I could see was her little face and that one tear. If we had gone to trial, I feel sure the jury would have maxed them out, and our office would have gotten a lot of good press. I worried about Lily. Her brother supported her, but other than him and our staff, she seemed so alone. I have never seen anyone try so hard to hold her fear and anger inside, and I was afraid of what would happen to her if she ever let go of her self-control.
In the plea deal, the perpetrators got 35 and 40 years in prison, respectively, on 3g offenses. No trial and no appeal. When it was over, Lily declined the opportunity to address the defendants; she turned down our offer to find her a counselor or just to sit and talk with us. She just thanked us politely and left.
She was willing to do whatever we needed. The hardest thing seemed to be admitting that she was afraid to testify. She would have testified, though. She would have done whatever we asked, but I am so glad we were able to spare her the trauma of reliving what those men had done to her. I still think Lily is the bravest young woman I have ever met.
Stella Stevens, Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County
I will never forget Rafael Gil. He is a simple, hardworking immigrant, a janitor at the Church of Christ in the Woodlands. He is also a man of tremendous faith, not only in God, but in the American justice system and in me.
One of his daughters, Priscilla, was molested by his nephew, Omar, in 1994. She told him about the crime in 1998. He decided to “handle it in the family” (he has a huge family network in the Montgomery County area) so his nephew could “get help.” Shortly after Priscilla’s outcry, his other daughter, Cindy, was also raped by Omar. She never told anyone and suffered in silence. She couldn’t even bring herself to celebrate her quincinera (her 15th birthday party) because she “wasn’t pretty anymore” and told her father to spend the money on a mission trip. She finally told her father what happened in 2004. He became furious and finally went to the police. (He later asked me, “Do you know how hard that was for me? When I could kill him myself for what he did to my beautiful daughter?”) The defendant confessed to molesting Priscilla but denied raping Cindy and promptly left for Mexico.
That is when I met Rafael. My chief, who would normally handle this type of case, was out sick when Rafael stopped by (read: bulldozed his way into) our office. He begged me to do everything in my power to bring the defendant to justice. I was sitting in my office thinking, “Dude, this is a 10-year-old crime.”
But Rafael was determined. He called everyone he could think of to help him, including the FBI, to bring the defendant back to the U.S.; he even went to Mexico himself, trying to get local authorities to find and arrest Omar. Long story short, the defendant came back on his own, Rafael called me, and we had him arrested.
Then we found out that the crime in Priscilla’s case, the one for which the defendant had confessed, occurred when Omar was a juvenile, and we couldn’t certify him. I didn’t know how to tell Rafael that we weren’t going forward with the case. I tried to explain, but he told me that he had faith in the court system, that he had faith in me, and that he knew I could do something. When someone tells you that they believe in you, that they have faith in you, and they do it with the sincerity and goodness of Rafael Gil, that really gets to you. So I thought, “What the hell? Let’s try the case with Cindy as the victim.” We had no evidence. It was her word versus his, and by now the case was 10 years old. But I believed my victim. My mother is Hispanic, and I was raised in San Antonio and I know about quincineras. I believed her for that reason alone—no Hispanic girl on the cusp of her quincinera was going to skip it without a traumatic reason.
The jury believed her too. They deliberated for seven hours but came back with a guilty verdict. We agreed on seven years in TDCJ because I was afraid the jury would assess probation due to their lengthy deliberations. If it weren’t for Rafael’s persistence and faith, I am not sure if this case would have been prosecuted.
Clarissa Kay Bauer, Assistant County Attorney in Harris County
I serve as legal counsel to the Harris County Toll Road Authority. My job is far removed from the criminal arena, and I don’t work with crime victims. However, years ago, I handled the animal cruelty cases for the County Attorney’s Office. These were not criminal prosecutions but rather civil seizures of abused animals pursuant to Chapter 821 of the Texas Health & Safety Code. I would go to court for an order taking the animals from their owners and turning them over to local animal rescue organizations.
These animals made an unforgettable impression on me. I remember one starving dog that was kept on a short chain in a dirt backyard: no food, no water, no shade in the 95-degree Houston summer. His collar was so tight it had become embedded in his neck. Cats in filthy living conditions, covered in feces. Horses left to die of starvation. The animals were victims in every sense: horribly abused or neglected, innocent, and helpless. Fortunately, with the help of the legal system, I was able to get them away from their owners and into loving hands.
Helping animals was truly the most gratifying legal work I have ever done. It inspired me to co-found (along with my friend Belinda Smith, who handles animal cruelty prosecutions at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office) the Animal Law Section of the Houston Bar Association in 2007. I agree with the sentiments of St. Francis of Assisi: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
Greg Gilleland, First Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Bastrop County
I have been priviledged to know many fine people who were crime victims over my career, but the crowning accomplishment of my career is a little girl we’ll call Jane (not her real name).
Jane lived with her mom and mom’s boyfriend in a trailer on her maternal grandma’s property out in the country. One morning, when her mother left for work at the crack of dawn, the boyfriend used the opportunity to commit indecency with a child to then-8-year-old Jane. The child fought like a tiger and ultimately ran from the trailer to her nearby aunt’s place.
Mom brought Jane to the children’s advocacy center (CAC) and was appropriately protective of her. I happened to be at the CAC when Jane was interviewed and developed the opinion that Jane was perhaps one of the smartest and most mature 8-year-olds that I had ever met. I didn’t think Jane’s mom, aunt, or grandmother were very smart, and I told the folks at the CAC that this child was obviously the braintrust of her family. Not only did I totally believe the kid’s outcry, but the physical evidence—serious, fresh bruises on her legs where the defendant attempted to pry them apart—corroborated her outcry immensely. The defendant was also a cokehead, and evidence suggested that he was the mother’s drug connection.
Several months later, I appeared in the county court-at-law to help a new prosecutor obtain a fi-nal protective order for Jane and her mother against the offender. Halfway through the hearing, the child’s mother, aunt, and grandmother announced that they no longer believed Jane’s allegations and claimed that the child was a liar. I knew otherwise.
About a year after the crime occurred, we interviewed Jane in preparation for trial. She told the same version of events that she had told initially and further allowed how her family kept asking her if she was sure she didn’t imagine it.
At trial, Jane’s mother testified her child was a liar. At a break, the defendant was seen shaking the mother in the hallway and telling her, “Your child is telling the truth. You need to believe your child.” Fortunately, the jury didn’t see this, but we were allowed to introduce it during trial. The defendant got 18 years in prison.
During the trial I met Jane’s paternal grandmother, an educated and elegant lady. Her son (Jane’s father) had basically dropped out of his daughter’s life shortly after her birth, but Jane’s paternal grandparents and an aunt were constantly sending money to Jane’s mom so they could have some access to the child and to help out the family financially. The grandparents, who live in an upscale neighborhood in a large city, filed a guardianship action, and Jane’s mother agreed to appoint them as guardians some time later. They eventually adopted her.
I’m happy to report that today, brilliant little Jane is attending a highly advanced school. At age 12, she received an invitation to attend a two-week Yale University pre-college program for gifted and talented students. For the first time in her life, she has adoring adoptive parents who love to spend time with her. Her aunt and uncle have started a college fund for her, realizing that she will likely pursue a post-graduate degree. She plays viola in the school orchestra and gets to participate in many forms of extracurricular activities that she was never exposed to with she lived with her birth mother.
Because Jane’s grandmother (adoptive mother) is the president and CEO of a large private social service agency, Jane has been able to travel to New York and Washington D.C. on multiple occasions and to Europe and Norway for seperate two-week periods. I get cards, letters, and pictures from Jane’s family every few months, keeping me apprised of her latest accomplishments and adventures.
I like to think that I helped not only get a child predator off the street for a few years, but that I also have made Jane’s life immensely better. She has an immensely mature understanding of her birth mother’s issues, and although she still loves her, Jane is very happy and well-adjusted in her new life. She constantly writes to thank me and our victim witness coordinator for our efforts to help her. It always brings a huge smile to my face when I get a card or letter from the family, and the entire office gathers around to see her latest pictures.
I call this case my one true victory as a prosecutor. I urge everyone out there to believe the children.
Donna Hawkins. Assistant District Attorney in Harris County
The case was one of hundreds pending in our very busy court. I hadn’t tried many sexual assault cases, and this one appeared to be a loser. In fact, my court chief recommended a face-to-face meeting with the parents and the 9-year-old complainant and then a dismissal of the charges. You see, the accused was a decorated military vet, a young, good-looking man with no criminal history. He didn’t look like a child molester. And the defense attorney was damn good and very hard to beat at trial. The DNA test showed only the victim’s saliva on the swab from her panties. It was alleged to be a one-time touching, late at night, a rubbing of the little girl’s vagina as she lay in her bed. The suspect was a family friend, almost considered a relative, who was visiting for a single night. Outcry was not immediate but the day after the assault occurred.
I arranged a meeting and met with the parents and the little girl, Jennifer. As they filed into my office, they stopped in shock. Her parents asked why I had a framed picture of their daughter on my desk. I told them that that was my daughter, then looked up amazed to see that Jennifer could have been a twin for my daughter, Brittany. As a colleague watched Jennifer, her parents and I spoke about the difficulty in prosecuting the case. They understood and asked several probing questions about trial and testimony. The mother pulled me aside after we spoke and asked me, “Would you spend just five minutes meeting with Jennifer so she won’t feel that a dismissal is her fault?” Of course, I readily agreed.
An hour later, I knew that this case was going to trial. Jennifer was an intelligent, compelling little girl with an inquisitive mind and a ready wit. She was also utterly believable about the sexual touching. I couldn’t explain why her saliva was found on the panties, and she couldn’t either, but I knew that the touching had happened and that I was going to prosecute the offender.
Trial was difficult. I saved Jennifer to be my last witness, and she waltzed right up to the stand, comfortable as can be. She also looked right at the defendant as she identified him. They locked eyes until he looked away. She told the jury what had happened. Interestingly, before trial I discovered that the defendant had been accused of giving another young girl in a different state a piggyback ride, and she had accused him of rubbing her bottom. The victim’s family in that case was not cooperating with authorities, and I could not secure that testimony. But as Jennifer testified, she mentioned an uncomfortable piggyback ride—something she had never mentioned before in all of our pretrial meetings. In fact, neither Jennifer nor her parents knew of the other victim’s allegations.
The jury found the defendant guilty as charged and eventually sentenced him to 20 years in prison. I still get chills as I recall the verdict and that beautiful little girl. As the jury deliberated their punishment verdict, Jennifer sauntered up to me and shyly slipped something into my hand. It was a note to the jury that I still have framed on my office wall: To the Jury: Thank you so much for believing in ME! Love, Jennifer
Jane Starnes, Assistant District Attorney in Williamson County
I put on a jacket the other day that I hadn’t worn in a while, and I felt something in the front pocket. I pulled it out and found it was a cheap little metal cross. Now, I don’t usually go around with religious artifacts in my pockets, especially ones that look like they came out of a gumball machine, but this little cross means a lot because of who gave it to me.
I got Roxanne’s case in January 2000. She had collapsed at school the first day back from Christmas break. She was 8 years old and weighed 38 pounds. She had red, swollen feet, her ears stuck out so that she looked like a little elf, and her belly was protruding like a starving child in Africa. Her parents were starving and abusing her in some really bizarre, cruel ways.
Roxanne was placed with a foster family where she immediately gained weight and morphed into a beautiful, healthy little girl. What really struck me about this child was that everyone who ever met her absolutely fell in love with her. Her teachers adored her—they marveled at how enthusiastic she was about school. (She testified at her parents’ trial that she loved school “because I get to eat and people are nice to me there.”) Paramedics who transported her to the hospital fell for her and attended the trial. The CPS caseworkers loved her. All the doctors who treated her were so taken by her that they were unusually cooperative with our trial preparation and schedule, and we got none of the usual “I’m a busy doctor” lip from them. Her foster family fell in love with her instantly.
I knew early on that the case was headed for court—her parents were too narcissistic and crazy to take responsibility for their actions. I knew that for such a traumatized child to make it through a trial, Roxanne had to get to know and trust me, so she and I met with her CPS worker. The first time I met Roxanne, she grabbed my hand and held it while we crossed the street. I was struck by how open and honest this little girl was, how trusting she was with me, a stranger. We went to the park and fed the ducks. We had lunch. I met with her at her therapist’s office. She came to my office. Finally, after a year-long delay and arranging for the change of venue (because of all the publicity), the day arrived when she had to testify against her parents. The jury had already heard testimony and seen photographs of her horrible malnourished condition by the time Roxanne showed up for trial in a pretty dress and matching purse, looking confident, healthy, and happy. She took my hand as we walked down the hall to the courtroom, and just before we went in, she pulled something out of her purse. It was a small metal cross that said, “Jesus loves you” on it. Roxanne looked at me and said, “Here, put this in your pocket so you won’t be scared.” It was all I could do to hold it together. This child had gone through hell and back and was getting ready to testify against her own parents, and she was worried that I might be scared.
The jury convicted her parents of criminally negligent injury to a child, which was just a state jail felony. At punishment, they realized their mistake (they forgot what “lesser-included” meant!) and gave them both two years within 20 minutes of deliberating. Then the jury terminated parental rights, and eventually Roxanne and her baby sister were adopted by their foster family and are doing great now. That’s why, eight years later, I still have that cheap metal cross in my pocket.
Timothy Salley, Assistant District Attorney in Moore, Dallam, Hartley, and Sherman Counties
The first sexual assault of a child case I tried involved two child victims: A.H., age 6, and her sister S.H., who was 10. Their father had taken in his 19-year-old nephew who had been thrown out of his own home. The nephew, who performed various acts of perversion upon the two girls, was charged with six counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child.
As a fairly new prosecutor, I sat second chair with the DA and helped prepare these two beautiful girls for the courtroom. I will never forget the 6-year-old; she was full of life—until she had to talk about her cousin, at which point her beautiful smile would turn into the saddest face one could imagine. The jury returned several life sentences for the nephew. After trial we let the girls put their handprints on the wall of our victims room. (Such has become a tradition for our victims.) I still see this family around town occasionally. They were very grateful and donated a PlayStation for our victims room.
My proudest moment as a prosecutor came about six months after trial. I was shopping at the grocery store when I suddenly felt a big squeeze on my leg. I looked down and saw A.H. with a big smile giving me the biggest hug she had. (I am 6-foot-3, and this child was very small for her age.) At that moment I realized who I am and what I do.
Today the smallest of all the handprints on our wall belongs to A.H., but she had the biggest impact on me. Partly because of that special hug in the middle of the grocery store, any child victim that I encounter will get the best that this prosecutor can deliver.
Mike Little, District Attorney in Liberty County
It’s been several years since I received that midnight phone call from a veteran detective. He needed help with a search warrant in a child abuse case. “Mike, it’s a bad one,” he said. I knew that he didn’t often exaggerate, and he certainly hadn’t this time.
Several children had been horribly abused. The defendant went way too far that evening and one child died. The sick and disgusting actions finally came to light. Having been involved with the case from the beginning, I chose to prosecute it personally. That’s how I met Linda (a pseudonym), one of the children who survived. I met with the surviving children many times, and Linda was the only one who was able to testify because of her age and the other children’s mental and physical limitations. Although the trial was years ago, I still vividly recall her testimony. There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom—mine certainly weren’t. The closest thing to justice that could be achieved by the criminal justice system was accomplished in that courtroom. And it was all because of Linda, the most courageous child I’ve ever met.
Linda is still in CPS custody. Her foster parents are wonderful people—I spent many hours in their home during my trial preparation. I regularly receive letters from her. The first few were truly heartbreaking: She described nightmares during which she relived the abuse of her and her siblings. Gradually, the tone of the letters became happier. Each letter praised me for “saving her,” and she often referred to me as her “hero.” I often see Linda at the annual CPS foster children Christmas party, and I always get a big hug. The latest three of Linda’s school photos are prominently displayed in my office among family photos, and she calls me each year on my birthday.
I think of Linda often. Of course, she comes to mind each time that I deal with a child abuse matter, but I also think of her when I think of my own two sons and other children who are well cared for. I often wonder why some kids are born to decent parents and some kids are born into a living hell.
Linda’s physical wounds have healed as well as they can. Mentally, she seems to be doing very well, and I thank God for that. I’ll be getting her high school graduation invitation soon. Although I don’t attend many graduation ceremonies anymore, I wouldn’t miss hers for the world. There won’t be any dry eyes there either.
It’s largely because of Linda and those like her that I do what I do.
Karen Larose, Assistant District Attorney in El Paso County
In the late 1980s an aggravated robbery case came across my desk where the victim was an elderly gentleman, Eduardo Martinez. He and his wife ran a small neighborhood grocery store. One night Mr. Martinez was taking some trash to the side of the building when he surprised a robber, Raul Rodriguez, who was putting on a mask to rob the store. Mr. Martinez recognized Rodriguez because he had given him a job cleaning around the store the week before. Mr. Martinez tried to run back to the store’s entrance, but Rodriguez pointed a gun at him and demanded money. Mr. Martinez took out his wallet, and the robber fired the gun in his direction but missed him. Eduardo ran toward the store’s door, believing he would be killed, and Rodriguez picked up the wallet and ran away.
As the case progressed through court I learned that Eduardo had been so traumatized by the incident that he would close his store early, before dark. His life and his business suffered, and he was very nervous about proceeding to trial. I wondered if I should plead the case to the 20 years the defendant was willing to take and spare Eduardo any further hurt that might occur by testifying in court. He appeared very fragile.
Finally I told Mr. Martinez that I was taking the case to trial. I told him that he would simply tell 12 people what had happened to him just as he had told me and that I knew he could do it. He testified, and the jury sentenced the defendant to 45 years.
I was in the hallway after sentencing when I saw Mr. Martinez in the hallway hugging his wife and telling a friend, “All I did was tell those 12 people what happened to me!” There was a spring in his step as though a burden had been lifted and he had taken charge of his life again. Allowing him to testify was a life-changing experience for him and I knew that the decision to go to trial had a positive and restorative impact on him.
Mr. and Mrs. Martinez came to see me several months later before the Christmas holidays. They both said things were back to normal and their business (now on the same hours as before the incident) was thriving. I don’t think they would have felt as confident and strong had the case pled and had Eduardo not testified. The trial process changed their lives, and they forever made an impression on me. ✤