Air Force program puts lawyer in victim's corner

JAKOB RODGERS Updated: March 23, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: March 23, 2013

Two years ago, nearly 100 people in the Air Force chose not to testify at court-martial about being sexually assaulted.

Confronted with that statistic, the Air Force has embarked on an initiative to keep sexual assault investigations from stalling before court-martial. The program, which began in late January, offers a government-paid attorney to give advice and representation to sexual assault victims.

The move has been viewed by military and civilian observers as revolutionary, if unproven, way to help victims of sexual assault deal with the legal system, which can reopen emotional wounds from the assault.

It bears particular weight at the Air Force Academy, which has grappled with a recent increase in sexual assault cases.

The lawyers operate apart from prosecutors or defense attorneys. They also offer a level of legal expertise not available from victim advocates, whose job is to give emotional support to victims while coordinating counseling and care.

Never before has the military offered this service. And similar programs are rarely found in the civilian sector.

In Colorado, for example, similar legal services in the civilian sector are limited to one nonprofit — a grant-funded organization called the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center that represents about three dozen people a year.

“The only downside, I guess, would be a budgetary one,” said Amy Fitch, senior deputy district attorney for the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s special victims unit. “I think it’s very interesting.”

A DELICATE TASK

The Air Force initiative began after 96 sexual assault victims chose to stop working with investigators or prosecutors in fiscal year 2011, said Lt. Col. Dawn Hankins, who heads the Air Force-wide program.

Without the cooperation of victims, cases often stall — as was the case with many of the 334 sex assault cases handled by the Air Force in fiscal year 2011, which ran from Oct. 1, 2010 through Sept. 30, 2011.

At the Air Force Academy — which has seen six cadets charged with sex assault since January 2012 — two or three victims a year refuse to cooperate with investigators, said Teresa Beasley, the academy’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.

“All the barriers to getting the case through to trial made them feel, in some ways, that they were being revictimized,” Hankins said.

The reason victims balk, advocates say, rests in the intensely painful emotional scars left by sexual assaults — and the punishing process of getting a case prosecuted.

Victims often must retell the experiences over and over — first to a nurse, then a doctor, then to victim’s advocates and repeatedly to police investigators and prosecutors, said Erica Laue, a therapist with TESSA, which offers services to sex assault and domestic violence victims.

At trial or court-martial, victims often face withering cross examination by defense attorneys. And attorneys often spar over whether to admit a victim’s sexual history into evidence — a process that can be humiliating for victims.

While serving as a victim’s advocate at Fort Carson in 2011, Laue noticed that victims who stopped cooperating with an investigation did so early in the process — before court-martial, during the first few interviews by Army special agents.

“That’s mostly because the process is very intimidating and the odds of success are very low,” Laue said.

The delicate nature of these prosecutions has raised some questions over whether adding another attorney to the mix could have unintended consequences.

Much of the new program’s success will rest in the training these attorneys receive in dealing with sexual assault victims, said Kris Miccio, a professor of law at the University of Denver.

“Have you talked to a survivor of sexual assault? Nonverbal communication — it’s all key,” Miccio said. “And unless you have that kind of training, you could be a bull in a China cabinet and make matters worse.”

THE PROGRAM

So far, the program amounts to a side-job for the 60 attorneys across the Air Force who act as special victims’ counsel.

Each of those attorneys was chosen because of their experience prosecuting sexual assault cases, Hankins said. They were sent to a three-day training seminar, then given a list of clients.

Each attorney must still prosecute cases at on their own docket, which are unrelated to their clients’ cases. To avoid conflicts, the attorneys are assigned victims who work at a different base.

A full-time crew of 20 to 30 attorneys is expected to replace the 60 part-timers in June across the Air Force, Hankins said.

In the meantime, each special victims’ counsel has been busy.

During the program’s first two months, 218 people across the Air Force have been assigned one of the attorneys, Hankins said.

Though they mainly help educate victims on the legal process, the attorneys have also intervened in some cases.

Twenty-six motions have been filed on behalf of victims, often to keep evidence from being admitted — such as mental health records.

In other military branches — as well as across the civilian sector — prosecutors usually act on a victim’s behalf in court, if only because they often see eye to eye.

In seeking justice, prosecutors interests’ sometimes clash with those of victims.

“As a prosecutor, it was very difficult because often, the victims would look to us as their personal attorney,” said Capt. Jennifer Jameson, one of the newly designated attorneys who has prosecuted several sexual assault cases at the academy.

The initial results have left Air Force advocates and attorneys cautiously optimistic.

Victims can decide whether or not to work with the government-paid counsel, even in cases where a victim wishes to keep the incident a secret by filing a “restricted” report. Restricted reports allow victims to receive counseling from victim advocates without opening a criminal investigation.

Nine of those people across the Air Force who have made restricted reports have retained counsel. And in at least one instance, a victim asked to open a criminal investigation after speaking to an attorney, Hankins said.

“In restricted cases, this is just fabulous — I can’t think of any other word,” the academy’s Beasley said.

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