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COURT ADVOCATE GIVES CRIME VICTIMS A HAND

When someone is accused of a crime, the defendant has a constitutional right to an attorney who will represent his or her interests alone.

But who represents the rights of the crime victim? The prosecutor? Not necessarily."The prosecutor's role is to present the evidence to get a conviction, and that may or may not be in the best interests of victims," said Reed Richards, a former prosecutor and now a chief deputy to Attorney General Jan Graham. "In many cases it is not."

Which is one reason why the attorney general's office has hired Diane Stewart, a full-time victim witness coordinator whose job is to represent the interests of victims.

"We have been neglecting victims for years and years," Reed admits, "and there is no question they ought to be included in the (criminal justice) system. And second, the constitutional amendment (passed last November by Utah voters) mandates that we provide these services."

Under the provisions of that constitutional amendment, victims of crime have the right to be notified at every step of the court process, as well as the right to be heard by the court. They also have the right not to testify at the trial.

Stewart, a former child abuse investigator with the Division of Family Services, said crime victims are generally unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. The process, which typically involves numerous hearings before any trial is held, is confusing, redundant and often causes considerable anxiety.

"A lot of people are embarrassed to admit they do not understand the process," she said. And many are angry when they appear in court to testify, only to find out the case has been delayed or their testimony was not needed at that time.

As a victims advocate, Stewart will assist victims of crime to prepare for the court experience by explaining each step of the process and who's who in the courtroom. That involves everything from making sure they know where and when to appear in court, arranging for leave from work or picking children up from school and getting them to court, and taking victims on pretrial tours of the courtroom where they will testify. Volunteers accompany the victims at every stage of the process.

"The difference with children (who have been oriented to the courtroom) is dramatic when you compare it to those who walk in cold without orientation," she said. "Children need the most help because children are the most vulnerable."

The Victims Assistance Program applies to all felony cases prosecuted by the attorney general's office, predominantly child abuse and consumer fraud cases. Stewart will also assist victims during the appeals process, the first time victims advocacy has been extended beyond the trial court level.

The concept of victim advocacy is gaining momentum statewide. Utah, Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties have similar programs, and Richards said it is common sense for prosecutors to make their witnesses feel as comfortable and as prepared as possible. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case in the past.

Now, prosecutors are required to refer all felony cases to the Victims Assistance Program. Ideally, Richards said, the victims advocate will be involved from the very beginning when criminal charges are being prepared.

Stewart appears tailor-made for the job. As a child abuse investigator, she had considerable experience as a witness. She has also seen the effect of the court experience on witnesses, particularly children.

"They have a fear of the unknown, of what might happen," she said. "There is a lot of self-blame and anxiety, particularly when they have to disclose something about their parents. (With the Victims Assistance Program) we can proactively address those concerns."