Murdered Man's Sister Hired To Help Other Crime Victims

Advocate Provides Counsel And Support

May 05, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

When Terry Smith learned the county State's Attorney's Office was hiring an advocate to work with victims of crime last fall, she knew itwould be the perfect job for her.

Smith can empathize with victims of crime: Her brother was murdered in Havre de Grace 18 months ago.

"I can remember when I was going through all of that," said Smith, of Aberdeen. "It was overwhelming."

In her eighth month as the county's first victim-witness coordinator, Smith works daily with crime victims. She has a salary of about $17,000 a year.

For crime victims, she is often a needed shoulder to lean on, say prosecutors who work with Smith, and a friendly face in the often cold atmosphere of the judicial system.

"It's important to (victims) to know that there is someone who cares about them," said Smith, a 33-year-old singlemother of one son. "A lot of times, they don't want anything more than to talk to someone who cares."

Before the victim-witness coordinator's post was established by State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, many victims and relatives were on their own to get information abouttheir cases, Smith said.

Most of the county's prosecutors, although sensitive to the concerns of the victims and their families, don'thave time to answer all of the questions of the victims because of the number of cases they handle, Smith said.

"At the time my familywent through the court process, the assistant (state's attorney) whohandled the case was helpful," Smith said. "But there was a need forsomething else -- a person who as always available and someone who was sympathetic to your situation."

Assistant State's Attorney MarkW. Nelson said many victims and their families were left in a "limbo period" between the arrest of suspects and trials. That changed when the county prosecutor's office hired Smith.

Victims usually havemany questions at the time of trials, but that is the period in which prosecutors are busy preparing their case, Nelson noted.

"There are times when we literally don't have the 10 or 15 minutes to sit down with the victims," he said.

Nelson, who prosecuted the three defendants charged in the beating death of Smith's brother in August 1990, said Smith has given him tips on helping victims understand the legal process.

For example, Nelson said, he has learned to answer questions from victims and their families in simple terms, rather thanusing the confusing legal terms of those working in the courts.

Because Smith has experienced what families of victims go through during the legal process, she is able to do more for them than an attorney, Nelson said.

Smith said her main duty is to keep in contact with victims or relatives of victims as their cases proceed through Harford Circuit Court.

That's not a small task, considering that the Circuit Court has about 150 cases entering the system each month. Manycases have more than one victim, Smith said.

Smith does not usually handle cases involving people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Those victims deal with the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center in Bel Air.

As the coordinator, Smith said, the first step she takes in each case is to call or write victims and their relatives to let them know she can help.

From there, much of what Smith does depends on what the victim and relatives request, she said.

Mostly, Smith said, victims want basic information on how the court system works: When do they need to appear in court? Where do they sitin the court room? What do the judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys do?

As the victim-witness coordinator, Smith collects information on property that might have been stolen in a crime so that a victim can collect restitution if a defendant is convicted, she said.

In addition, Smith helps victims prepare Victim Impact Statements, sometimes used by judges to determine proper sentencing.

"I'm always available," Smith says. "There's a list of things I can help (victims) with if they request it."

If requested, Smith said, she will attend court proceedings with victims, refer them to counselors and talkto creditors to postpone payment of medical bills until the victims receive restitution.

"I will stick with a case as long as there isa victim and as long as they're still interested in the case, up until the defendant is released from prison," Smith said.

Many victims request information on defendants following their conviction, Smithsaid. The victims often ask where the defendants are serving their sentence and when they are eligible for parole.

"But a lot of victims, once the defendant is convicted, they want to put that part of their life behind them," Smith said.

She said she is looking for ways to improve the county's services to victims and their families.

The State's Attorney's Office is considering applying for a grant to pay for counseling for some victims, Smith said. The program would bemodeled after one in Baltimore County, which many victim advocates say is the best in the state.

Smith said she also hopes to expand the county's victim services program to Harford District Court.

"There are a lot more victims in District Court, with all those cases that don't come to Circuit Court," Smith said. "There's no one helping them."

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