The District Attorney’s Office is tasked with prosecuting cases and seeking justice through a fair and transparent judicial process. This encompasses a strong commitment not only to a fair judicial process but also the creation and practice of principled policies for the people of the 13th Judicial District.
Our consistent aim in the pursuit of justice is advocacy for, and commitment to, victims of crime, their rights and access to a variety of comprehensive services.
What sometimes gets lost is the understanding that while the DA’s office is entirely committed to protecting a victim’s constitutional rights, we also have to prove the crime in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt while protecting both the rights of the victim and the rights of the defendant. Protecting the rights of the defendant is part of our duty and, as ministers of justice, also insures a conviction is immune to reversal if the case is appealed. Sometimes this requires us to make difficult choices along the way.
The cooperation of a victim throughout the court process often is key to a successful outcome. Rights of victims include the right to be informed, the right not to be harassed, the right to be present and the right to be consulted. Though a victim has these rights, it is not always the easiest process for a victim to take advantage of them out of fear, residual trauma and other reasons.
This is where our victim assistance staff comes in. Our staff assists victims with crisis intervention, counseling referrals, obtaining restitution and emergency assistance, case status notification and escorts them to every court appearance.
In the last year, our victim assistance staff across the district has helped almost 1,500 victims of crime. It is important to understand that the number is much greater when we consider the families of victims of crime who are also greatly impacted. The victim assistance staff work to provide a secure, comfortable, supportive environment, where victims, witnesses and their families are introduced to the extensive services available to them through the District Attorney’s Office and beyond. Victims also receive information about their rights in the criminal justice system.
Carol, a survivor of attempted murder and kidnapping, initially did not want to pursue the case against her perpetrator. She was understandably fearful of the process and her abuser. With the encouragement and support of the victim assistance staff throughout the process, she was ultimately able to find the strength to cooperate with our office and testify against her abuser. He was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Carol found she was capable of more than she ever believed.
Krissy was the victim of a violent crime. As a result of the crime, she became emotionally unstable, very weak and somewhat broken. She was not sure she could face her abuser in court.
Her victim assistant supported her through the entire case process and was with her when she testified in court. She stood in court just a few feet a way from her abuser and explained how the she felt and how the abuse left her physically disabled for the rest of her life. During her testimony, she broke down and cried but, when she walked out of that courtroom, she held her head high and expressed pride in herself and said she was leaving her fear and self-doubt behind.
In some circumstances the support for victims extends to resources beyond the DA’s office as in the cases of family members who have lost a loved one and have no idea how to pay for the funeral in order to lay them to rest. The victim assistance staff makes referrals to services such as the Crime Victim Reparation Committee (cvrc.state.nm.us), which provides financial assistance in these instances.
The last week in April is National Crime Victims Right’s Week (April 25-30). The theme for the awareness week this year is rights, access, equity for all victims. This theme mirrors the daily intents and goals of the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office — to reach and support victims of crime, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, and to support them through the criminal justice system, which can be confusing and overwhelming, in order to seek the justice, they so deserve.
For more victim services information and resources please visit 13th.nmdas.com/victimassistance.
(Barbara Romo is district attorney for the 13th Judicial District. Her 25-year career has been steadfastly committed to protecting the rights of crime victims.)