For every crime there is a victim

Published 11:19 pm Saturday, June 30, 2007

For every violent crime there is a victim. Often times it has been claimed that the defendants have more rights than the victims. Not so in Mississippi. According to state law ammended as of 1997, each district attorney’s office must have at least one victim’s assistance coordinator.

Staci Kramer and Jeff Caillouet are the champions for victims out of Hal Kittrell’s Fifteenth District office in Poplarville. They cover the five counties of Lamar, Lawrence, Jefferson Davis, Pearl River and Marion.

Victims do have rights within the criminal justice system, besides the right to receive adequate law enforcement protection from harm and threats of harm. According to Mississippi Code of 1972 Section 99-36-5, the rights include the right to file criminal charges where the perpetrator is known; the right to have a circuit or county court judge to take the safety of the victim or victim’s family into consideration as an element of consideration when bail is fixed; the right to be informed of court proceedings; the relatives of a victim have a right to be present during all public court proceedings. The right to be informed, to give an impact statement and to receive information regarding compensation to victims of violent crime are provided to the victims and the victims’ families by Kramer and Caillouet.

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“We have 525 cases on the docket right now,” Hal Kittrell said in an interview on Wednesday. “That doesn’t include the cases that are coming up before the grand jury soon. These two handle all of it. That is a lot to handle.”

“Before Staci came,” Caillouet said, “the counties were divided differently. I had both Lamar County and Pearl River County. These counties were growing at a tremendous rate and it was overwhelming. Now, Staci has Pearl River County and Jeff Davis. I take care of Lamar, Marion and Lawrence. But, we struggle with the case load, we really do.”

“The best thing we have going for us is the victim’s assistants,” Kittrell said. “I take great pride in them and what they do. This is a calling. Not everyone can do this job. This is the only support system for victims and they keep it personal. They help us keep the victims informed. With 525 cases, that’s at least 525 victims and these two do a great job keeping the victims informed and keeping the cases personal. I can’t say enough good things about Jeff and Staci.”

Caillouet and Kramer serve as liaisons between the DA’s office and the victim and the court system and the victim.

“We usually get deeply involved,” Caillouet said. “We meet with the victims to prepare them for the grand jury (proceedings). A lot of times they are there but they don’t even know why they are there.”

“Usually, the law officers have built such a good bank of evidence to present to the grand jury, we’ll tell the grand jury the victim is here ready to give testimony, but usually they don’t have to testify. The grand jury is satisfied with the evidence presented by the law officers. But, the victims have to be there in case,” Kittrell said.

Kramer and Caillouet call themselves educators and liaisons. Their job is to provide the victim with the help needed to see the criminal process through from the convening of the grand jury to the parole of the convicted felon and what that means to the victim.

“We free up the attorney’s time. We can answer most questions, and that way, the attorneys have time to work on the case to convict the defendant,” Caillouet said. “We make sure victim’s are aware of the resources available to them for violent crime victims.

“One of the most important things we do is provide the court with the victim impact statement. We prepare that statement and find out what the financial losses are, what their emotional impact has been, their physical impact such as their injuries, what is their preference for sentencing. What they would like the court to do.”

The emotional trauma can affect victims in different ways. The impact statement helps the victim to outline how the crime affected them in their daily activities such as work, family and social relationships. Each victim is asked to describe what the effects of the crime had in their life or the lives of those close to them. Victims are asked to outline all the physical injuries along with the treatment and where the treatment was administered. Financial losses are detailed as well. Then the victim is reminded sentencing is a court decision, but the Court would like to know what the victim’s opinion is.

“Most people show up and just don’t know what’s going on,” Kramer said. “If you are not involved with the legal system, you are thrust into it because you are a defendant or you are a victim. Most of those that show up have been through a trauma of some sort. A lot of people will look at a crime and think the victim can’t be affected that badly by it. But the victim really feels like they’ve been violated. They don’t feel secure anymore. Of course, different personalities are impacted in different ways.”

“You have to talk to them,” Caillouet said, “and find out how their emotional stability is impacted, how they are feeling. You need to find out if they need to talk to somebody. Most will tell you they need counseling. They’ll say, ‘I can’t sleep at night.’ Then we’ll say, ‘Maybe we need to get you to a counselor. Others will say they’ve been wiped out financially and we’ll get their application for the restitution program started.”

Kramer leaned forward in her enthusiasm, “The first time we ever meet a victim, the first thing we do is say ‘I’m here for you. I’m not going away. I’m a telephone call away. I’m not a therapist, not a social worker, I’m not an attorney. I am a liaison between you and the legal system. If you have a question, call me. When crisis comes and you don’t know where to turn, call me. I may not know the answer, but I’ll find out.’ We spend a tremendous amount of time on the phone keeping each victim informed.”

Kittrell says in general from the time of arrest to the trial takes around two years. A victim can get to a point of frustration, but the wheels of the systemit are slow turning . The grand jury must hear the evidence, then indict. Sometimes it takes a while to find the defendant and serve a subpoena. It is easy to serve when the person is incarcerated. But, if the person is a flight risk, the indictment is not made public until the subpoena is served, that can take up to six months.

“You may have six cases set for trial on the same day. All of those can’t be tried on the same day,” Caillouet said.

“What happens then,” Kittrell said, “is we’ll look at each case (and assign levels of priorities) the rape case will be tried before the burglary case.”

“Once in a while we’ll have to agree to disagree,” Kittrell said. “I’ll have to go to Jeff or Staci and say, ‘We just can’t come up with the burden of proof on this case.’”

“Yes, and I’ll say, ‘How are you going to tell the victim that? I’m not going to tell him.’” Caillouet shot back with a smile. “That is a difficult situation. Sometimes we’ll have to tell the victim that the grand jury didn’t indict them and the case is over with. A lot of the time they’ll hang up and then call back in a few minutes and ask, ‘Did you think of this?’”

Victims suffer in ways beyond the initial criminal act. According to the brochure from the Pearl River Basin Victim Assistance Program, victims may “experience the inability to trust, emotional or physical isolation, depression, panic or anxiety, anger, hypervigilence, increased concern for personal/family safety, nightmares and a change in sleep patterns, feelings of shame, guilt and self-doubt, reliving what happened, suicidal tendencies – thoughts or attempts.” The brochure points out that reactions vary because each person is unique.

Resources that Kramer and Caillouet refer victims to include,

– Crisis intervention

– Referrals to social service agencies

– Information about the criminal justice system

– Information on the status of their case

– Assistance in applying for compensation from the Mississippi Crime Victim’s Compensation Program

– Restitution for financial losses (if the court orders it)

– Property return assistance

– Court accompaniment

– Employer, school, and creditor intercession

– Sentence notification

– After incarceration, parole information

“Staci and Jeff are doing an excellent job,” said Kittrell. “Their job is to make sure the victim is not victimized twice. To make sure the victim knows at the point when they meet them, they won’t be groping in the dark.”

“If it could be summed up in one word,” Kramer said, “that word would be compassion. You just have to be compassionate and hold a hand and refer to a resource or when you have to break (the) bad news that your case is not indicted, you just try to keep a human element to it in a very sanitary environment.”

“There are callings in this world…this is a calling. Their work is a good service, the best I’ve ever seen,” Kittrell said. “I’ll walk out of court after a trial and I’m heading home. They sit with these victims in court and when I head home, they’re still sitting with them for as long as it takes.

“One of the greatest things is the closing argument and telling the victim’s story. I’ll ask them if I told all their story. When they say, ‘Yes,’ then I know it was a good job done.”

Sometimes they carry their job home. It isn’t always easy to shrug the burden off at work.

Kramer said, “Before I took this job, I had to weigh all the factors and the options. There were going to be rape cases, death cases, child molestation cases. I’m a mother and (children) are my heart. I have a very deep faith and I had to pray about this. I can personalize these cases for these victims and keep it human, but I have to just get away or I’ll burn out. I really enjoy this work. My husband is in law enforcement and talking to him about some aspects is therapeutic.”

“Our victories are mixed victories,” Kittrell added. “A victory means we’ve convicted someone for a crime and the downside is we had a victim. We can’t take their hurt…that takes a lifetime. We secured justice, but did we get all the justice? We can’t make them whole again. They do have to do that themselves.”

“Many times I’ve been satisfied,” Caillouet said. “But, even when we get a win there is this underlying dark side of it. The victims have to relive it all and that is rough for them. We’ve won the majority of cases, but the ones that stick out in my mind are the losses. You feel you want to help, and you do take that hurt on yourself. The attorneys do too. You’ve got to just set it aside.”

“Celebrate the victory and analyze the defeat,” Kittrell said.

The main difference between the Victim’s Assistance Coordinators (VAC) and the attorneys is that the VACs build relationships with the victims over six months to a year and the attorneys are immersed in the crime and relive it with the victim in a compact two week time frame. Both hurt when the case is lost. The case is personal. Kittrell stresses that no case is a number, every one of them has a face and a name. He says Kramer and Caillouet help keep him straight. They make it possible for the attorneys to concentrate on building and presenting the best case possible.