Victim Witness Unit at the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office

So, on the last day of my assignment with the Victim/Witness Unit, I’ll take this lazy, uneventful day in the office to describe what it is I’ve done here and learned so far.

An excerpt from the SCDAG website:

The Victim/Witness Unit (V/W) serves the needs of victims and witnesses on all felonies in General Sessions Court and all cases in Criminal Court. This includes notification of arrest, preliminary hearing, grand jury indictment, pretrial conference, trial, and case disposition. The General Sessions V/W Coordinator sends an initial contact letter to all victims of felony cases to notify them of the arrest of the defendant and to give them a contact person to answer their questions. The General Sessions V/W Coordinator also notifies all victims and witnesses subpoenaed for preliminary hearings prior to the hearing dates.

Once a case is indicted by the grand jury, the Victim/Witness Coordinator in the division or special unit to which the case is assigned sends the victim a notification letter and contacts them regarding any restitution for out of pocket losses due to the crime. The coordinator keeps the victim informed of case status by telephone whenever the victim calls or at the request of the prosecutor.

When a case is scheduled for trial, the Victim/Witness coordinator assigned to the case will contact the victims and witnesses to inform them of the trial date. On the trial date, the Victim/Witness Coordinator works with the trial assistants to make the court appearance of a victim or witness as easy as possible. The Victim/Witness Coordinator also makes travel arrangements for out-or town victims and witnesses when necessary.

So, that was basically my job. An infographic:

Image

The first thing I learned was this. Well, I take that back. I did not learn this first. I was mystified, completely lost about the path a case takes through the Shelby County justice system, until I found the above brochure, entitled “Path through the Shelby County Justice System.”

General Sessions (“Downstairs”)

I started coordinating in General Sessions with Marcus. The day began by going from division to division with a list of subpoenaed witnesses and checking off which had arrived so that the general sessions attorneys would know who had appeared and who they could talk to before their day began. Only once did I call out in the crowded hallway for a very important witness, who never showed. Back in the office, I learned how to print dockets every day for the initial appearance arraignments and organize the arrest tickets for the Victim/Witness Coordinators (VWCs) “upstairs.”* Eventually, arrest tickets would come back down stairs in yellow jackets, at which point I also learned how to input contact information for subpoenaed witnesses and victims into the case-management software used here at 201.** I would send letters to those witnesses and victims letting them know that there was a preliminary hearing coming up. For those witnesses that had been subpoenaed for the prelim, I would call a list with their contact information at the end of the day, reminding them a few days in advance that they were expected to come in.

Calling the list could be laughable or nightmarish. I’ve had witnesses:

ask if they “really have to come” (always);
refuse to come;
refuse to let other witnesses come;
hang up on me;
answer in false, high-pitched old-lady voices and tell me I have the wrong number;
keep me on the line for a half an hour telling me every detail of their case;
hit on me;
argue about the Constitution with me;
embarrass me by speaking better English than I do French . . .

And the list goes on.

General sessions itself was quite a shock to me. Coming from a mock trial background, I was stunned walking into a general sessions court room for the first time. It was loud. Where I had been taught that a court room conduct should be akin to that appropriate to a funeral, people in the gallery and around the tables past the bar whispered (and in some cases, talked!), and the sheer number of whispers created quite a din. I couldn’t hear the judge, who addressed maybe three defendants at a time to take their guilty pleas. The attorneys stood at a single podium which they would share with a testifying witness or defendant, instead of behind the desks, because 6-8 prosecutors and defense attorneys/PDs occupied the little tables, working on their cases, waiting for the judge to call them. Or snacking. Or texting. Or sleeping. 

I had the occasion recently to go to lunch with the District Attorney General, Amy Wierich. She explained that most attorneys start out “downstairs” in general sessions court, “working the podium” for arraignments and prelims, and in some cases, bench trials. In some cases, if there aren’t any openings in general sessions, the DA’s office will hire aspiring attorneys as investigators while they wait for a general sessions job to open up. This is a pretty good deal, since I’ve heard that over at the PD’s office, law students will work for free until a paying position becomes available. She also explained that some judges take decorum more seriously than others, and she’s right: I’ve since had the occasion to be in a general sessions court room that was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. No Coke cans or cell phones, which was a relief, but as far as I can tell, general sessions is still ground zero for chaos. At 201 Polar, it’s downstairs in the basement, and I think the building was probably designed in that way to control the heat of the huge number of people that crowd up the large lobby every day from 9-3. The first time I took the escalator down with Lindy to sit in on a prelim that would eventually go “upstairs,” she called it “the dungeon.”

Also, apparently, while I did have an i.d. badge, you need a key to use the staff restrooms downstairs. Marcus told me on the first day to let him know if I needed it, and–embarrassed by the idea that I would have to let someone know that I needed to go so they could  let me in somewhere and then maybe think about the fact that I was peeing or pooping–I walked upstairs to the first floor every time. To this day I have no idea where the staff bathrooms are downstairs.

Juvenile Court

One day, during a conversation with Marcus about how much I dislike teenagers, the phone rang. Amy McCullough had a new assignment for me: helping out the VWC in juvenile court.

So for a while, I spent my three days a week down the street at 616 Adams. Much of the work was the same: in the morning, I would go into the hall and call out for the witnesses and victims, who had to sit in the hall here–instead of in the court room–in an effort to protect the privacy of the juveniles going before the court. I would then walk the ones that had shown up back to a waiting area near the office of whichever prosecutor was handling the docket. I would also call a list at the end of the day to remind subpoenaed witnesses about their appearances.

Entering tickets was a whole new monster, here, however. The juvenile courts don’t have the same case management software as 201.** In fact, they have none. Which meant manually creating a “docket” for ourselves with contact info in Word and then re-entering that contact information in Excel to perform a mail-merge so we could sent letters. It was essentially twice the work, without a searchable database at the end that we could use when victims called with questions or to follow up on restitution claims. I told Natasha over and over that we needed the same software as 201 had. She finally said that she had talked to someone, an IT guy, who said that he was working on something that she should have next month, but I will check on her in another month and I will talk to someone if she hasn’t gotten some software in place.

The juvenile court is frustrating enough as it is. I talked to many people who, over and over, engaged me in conversation about how hard it is to see kids get slapped on the wrist until they’re 18 and they turn up in general sessions. As liberal-minded as I am, I told the General at lunch the other day, as much as I believe that people are products of their environment a lot of times and don’t know any other way but to steal or to cheat when they’re in their forties, it really does seem like juvenile court is the place where we should be able to come down hard on kids who need discipline and may not have families who care enough to give it to them, but it seems like nothing ever happens to anyone in juvenile court. She nodded her head, and looked tired.

The system itself is a little different and entirely separate from the info-graphic above. Juveniles are charged with “delinquent acts,” not crimes, and the terms “guilty” and “innocent” aren’t used, either. Judge Curtis S. Person, who I met on accident the first day I was there, gave me a bunch of information on the courts (including a little booklet, “Understanding the Juvenile Court System”). Also included in my new padfolio with the seal of TN and Judge Person’s name on it was an article that announced the DOJ’s investigation of the Juvenile Court System in Shelby County in 2009, and the reforms it had undergone in the past three years to reverse patterns of racism and persistent due process violations.

Criminal Courts (“Upstairs”)

Once Natasha and I established a rhythm, I really didn’t need to be there all the time, and so I went back to general sessions with Marcus sometimes. There really wasn’t enough to occupy all three days then, either, so I headed “upstairs” at 201, to the VWC department for the criminal courts, to see if I could do anything there. For about the last month, I’ve been riding circuit between the three as needed. It has been frustrating that, even though I’ve worked here for about three months and everyone I work closely with knows me, none of the secretaries can remember my face and sometimes stop me and ask for my badge before they will buzz me in. Sometimes, I was there the day before. Down in general sessions, I’ll just walk through the negotiation room, so as to avoid Ms. Annette, to whom I would have to re-introduce myself for the billionth time.

Upstairs, I learned to send initial contact letters once Marcus brought the arrest tickets upstairs. After this point, the arrest tickets went back in Marcus’s box upstairs, and he (I guess?) took them back downstairs, and at some point someone put it in a yellow jacket and scheduled a prelim if the defendant wanted one . . . and I probably handled it again when I was downstairs in general sessions. I asked Lindy once why Marcus didn’t just keep them downstairs and send initial contact letters, and I think her answer made sense, but I can’t remember it now.

I also learned to send letters to inform victims of new Grand Jury Indictments, as well as perform restitution investigations. In cases where the victim has been robbed or has sustained injuries or has had their property damaged, we call the victim or maybe a credit card company or a business for specifics and/or documentation and fill out information sheets so that the attorneys can ask a judge to order restitution in case a defendant is put on probation. This has been one of the most interesting parts of my job, as it really is an investigation, and I like snooping around and figuring things out. I also like announcing that “my name is Kaitlin Beck and I’m calling on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office . . .” While I start most calls like that here, during the investigation, I think it’s the telephonic equivalent of flashing a badge or something. And I try to write my notes for the real VWCs in the way that they write theirs: “Victim advised that she was dispossessed of a stereo and that her front door needed repair. Victim advised that the stereo was not recovered. . .” But I also just like writing them that way.

Here, I have learned here that it is incredibly important to write down the serial numbers on all of your valuable items, to keep the receipts, and to keep all of these documents safe. A great number of the people who are caught are caught because the police pull a pawn ticket with a matching serial number. I’ve also learned that comprehensive homeowners or renters insurance is pretty important, as there is very little chance that a victim will get anything back. If a defendant is sentenced to probation, great–the judge can make restitution a condition of probation, during which time they might be able to find a job. Maybe. And they might be able to pay you $25/month. If a defendant is sentenced to jail time, they can’t make any money, and we tell them that they can pick up the claim in civil court once the defendant is released, but our office is done with it. And why would you pick it up in civil court? How can they pay, anyway, if they were stealing in the first place?

While I don’t have to call for witnesses in the hall upstairs, as VWC handle scheduling appearances for the many witnesses on a particular case, I have had to sit in for Amy and make sure my witnesses and their rides are there. It was “MD1,” murder one, and very interesting. The witnesses did not seem to think so, on this particular day, and were lamenting the fact that they had to be there. I was glad to call the investigators to come pick them up after they testified.

I also send “closed file” letters, which inform the victims of the disposition of a case. The easiest are guilty plea letters, with the sentences written neatly [haha jk] on the bigger, manila jackets that are used upstairs. It was difficult, at first, to learn the short hand. “GP 1 yr SCCC” means “guilty plea, one year Shelby County Community Corrections,” and Shelby County Community Corrections is a type of probation program. Another example: “DPCS” stands for Dept. of Corrections, I think. It means jail. And why not write “jail?” D-P-C-S, j-a-i-l. Maybe the dots are the time wasters, but you could write JAIL in capitals, too. I write “incarceration” in the letters, anyway. I found out later that even after interpreting the mysterious acronyms on the jackets, I would have to double-check the info in an online database, as details like restitution or whether multiple sentences were concurrent or consecutive were frequently omitted. This struck me as a frustrating time-waster, and I wished I knew who it was that was writing on these jackets, anyway, and if anyone had ever thought about letting them know that, if they’d just go ahead and put the full and correct disposition on the jackets, everyone in V/W, I think, would really appreciate it.

At the end of the day in each department, I stuffed envelopes, filled with all manner of letters that I had printed that day and I drop them off either: upstairs, just inside the secretary’s window; at juvenile, down in the scary basement where lights flicker and once went completely off while I was down there; or downstairs, in the outgoing mailbox, not next to it, as Ms. Annetta advised me my first day there. While she cannot remember who I am or if I am allowed to be there, I am not sure she will soon forget the day that someone put letters on her desk for her to put in the mail slot.

And it’s three ‘o’ clock and, while I have worked pretty tirelessly for the past few months, I think I’m gonna go home this afternoon and read a book before second-work. Because the other part of this job is that I don’t get paid, so I work nearly 40 hours a week (a new experience for me) at Red Robin after I work about 20 hours here. Boo. But this weekend I leave on a glorious week-long vacation, and I think I’ll appreciate it more than any vacation I’ve ever had, which is nice. And when I come back, I transfer to the Domestic Violence Unit, and forget all that I’ve learned in V/W. Oh, and I’m going to go on a jail tour with all the summer interns at their orientation. You’re so jelly.

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