The hidden heroes in the courthouse: Victim-Witness Assistants’ vital role

By: Jodi Guglielmi

Caitlin has gone through an emotional journey since the night she first called the cops on her abusive husband.

After Jim, her husband, spent a night drinking with his friends, he came home to find his wife sleeping. The problem? He wanted to go bowling. When Caitlin refused to go with him, Jim punched her in the nose as she lay in the bed with their young daughter. Jim then forced her to stay in the bed for the remainder of the night, leaving Caitlin and her daughter to sleep in bloodstained sheets.

Since then, she has watched as the judge sentenced him to time in jail, which occurred earlier this month in the Davidson County District Court.

Caitlin went through an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows during the complete saga, and that is when the victims-witness assistants of the Davidson County Attorney’s Office came in.

The district attorney office’s four victim-witness assistants- Karen Coe, Lisa Harris, Anne Gould, and Leatha Hightower- handle thousands of cases each year in the county’s District and Superior Courts.

“The people who work as victim-witness assistants are an essential part to any court case. They are the liaison between the court officials and victims,” said Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann.

 

Dealing with misconceptions

According to Coe, one of the most important aspects of their job is helping the victims understand the often overwhelming and confusing court system. People who come to court for the first time, often believe that their cases are going to be heard right away.

“They don’t realize that it’s a process, and it may be months until the case is heard,” said Coe. “We help them deal with the time in between and how to prepare them for future events.”

The victim-witness assistants help collect police and other court reports that might play an important part in the case. They also help the victims write their statements, all of which takes time.

However, it is during this downtime that their jobs are the most important.

“Especially with domestic violence cases [like Caitlin’s], the time between when charges are pressed to when they are in front of the judge is vital,” said Hightower. “We have to encourage them not only to tell the truth but to keep going with the case. Oftentimes they want to return to their loved one even amidst everything that is going on.”

Because the judges work on a calendar schedule, the victim-witness assistants must inform the victims that it could take months for their case to be heard. They have to keep the victim focused and stable throughout the entire process.

 

The emotional impact

When dealing with cases, ranging anywhere from simple assault, burglaries, to murder, the victim-witness assistants acknowledge that the job can be very emotional at times.

Hightower, who specializes in domestic violent cases, notes that watching the women suffer through both physical and mental pain can take a toll on everyone involved.

“There have been times that I have gotten in my car and started crying. You take the job home with you; it’s not just an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job,” said Hightower.

Harris and Hightower both agree that cases involving children are the hardest. They said it is difficult to predict the emotional scars that the children will carry for the rest of their lives.

While the women are not licensed counselors, they still act as an emotional support system for the victims.

“I keep my cellphone on so that victims can call me at anytime with any questions that they may have,” said Harris.

When they are not enough, they refer them to counselors and family abuse and justice centers.

 

Keeping up with the pace

Each victim-witness assistant can handle hundreds of cases a day, making their job very busy at times.

“We read through every file and make initial contact with the victims. While they might not all reply, we at least make sure they know we are here for them,” said Coe.

From sitting with victims in the courtroom, providing counseling, to advocating for the rights of the victims, they work to accommodate the victims in any way necessary and help prepare for the trails.

“They have the difficult job of treating each case differently and adapting to whatever the victim needs. They are with them every step of the way,” explains Attorney Paul Bollinger.

They also assist the prosecutors in collecting subpoenas, documents and any other information they might request. While it is time consuming, the women know that it is always worth it.

The victim-witness assistants are an integral part of the court system. They speak for the victims who otherwise might go unheard. Seeking justice and supporting those who have been wronged is their main objective.

“We care. If we can’t do anything else, we simply want the victims to know that we care, and that there is someone on their side,” said Hightower. “Sometimes that’s all they need to push forward and keep fighting for justice.”

*Names of victims have been changed

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