04/15/08 — Grant gives witnesses, victims legal assistance

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Grant gives witnesses, victims legal assistance

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 15, 2008 1:54 PM

When most court systems are clogged with a backlog of cases, sometimes it's the victims of crime who get lost in the red tape.

Victims come through the courts every day -- brought there by larceny, assault, communicating threats or a variety of things they never asked for.

When they arrive, they usually bring a sense of anxiety and even fear, as they anticipate being called upon as a prosecution witness or to testify on their own behalf.

"Sometimes it's just merely that a victim will absolutely not have any experience with the court system, be overwhelmed and not know what to do. They have just broken down and cried," says Cathy Calhoun, a victim witness legal assistant in the District Attorney's office.

Ms. Calhoun recalled many times watching a victim being escorted out into the hallway and having to be reassured.

"'It's OK, we'll get you through this,' and we'll walk them through the process," she said.

The court dockets are full and such personal service is getting increasingly hard to come by.

It's important, though, not to have victims and witnesses fall by the wayside.

At the very least, Ms. Calhoun says, "We don't want them to become victims again by the court system."

Hopefully a two-year federal grant will help.

The money -- $71,670 for the first year, $69,742 for the second -- will provide a victim witness legal assistant assigned to district court, one in Wayne County and one serving Lenoir and Greene counties.

The assistant's duties are primarily to help crime victims navigate the criminal justice system.

"They help subpoena people, help (victims) through court, notify them of court dates, try to keep in touch with them, try to talk with everyone when they're in the court room," Ms. Calhoun explained.

"We do have a lot of victims that are elderly. It really helps to keep the system going and that the victims get what they're entitled to."

With an average of 300 to 400 cases a day in Wayne County -- which doesn't include domestic cases -- the assistance is crucial.

"We're trying to make sure our courts are covered as far as victims' services, trying to make sure all victims are receiving a fair shake from the court system," Ms. Calhoun said.

It has also been helpful to have the backing of Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory.

"(He) is a great believer in victims' rights and making sure victims are taken care of," Ms. Calhoun said.

"There are different avenues open to us that we can reach and help the victims. We want to make sure that every victim that comes through court receives the help that they're entitled to."

So far, the grant funding has proven beneficial to those served in Wayne County, Ms. Calhoun said. Hopefully when the two years is up, the effort can continue.

"Maybe we can get a permanent position from the legislature or apply for another grant," she said.