Powerful resource for the prosecution If witnesses falter, advocate Welsh can redirect their strength

January 15, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

The 23-year-old woman was horrified to see the man who sexually assaulted her walking in the lobby of the Howard County Circuit Court building.

She pushed herself and her mother into the lobby bathroom and out of the man's sight. Get Catherine Welsh, she told her mother.

Mrs. Welsh is the victim-witness advocate in the state's attorney's office, a resource for witnesses when they go to court to testify for prosecutors.

Her boss calls her "the comfort factor" because she provides a hand to hold, a smiling face in the crowd and information about criminal cases.

"Catherine is a good example of an unsung hero," said Marna McLendon, Howard County state's attorney. "She's the one who makes the system responsive to victims, and that's so important."

Ms. McLendon said Mrs. Welsh tends the needs of witnesses, while prosecutors focus on the nuts and bolts of their cases.

Mrs. Welsh's job is to make the courthouse a less intimidating place than it might be for those who face the difficult -- and potentially dangerous -- task of pointing accusing fingers at defendants.

Along with prosecutors, Mrs. Welsh helped guide the 23-year-old woman through the judicial system for her testimony against Thomas M. Martin, a county police sergeant who sexually assaulted her in his cruiser in August.

On Dec. 8, three days after testifying, the woman returned to the courthouse for Judge James B. Dudley's verdict in Martin's nonjury trial. She went to court for justice. She didn't want to face Martin outside the courtroom.

"I was really dreading seeing Martin's face again," she said.

She said that since the Aug. 3 assault, she had had nightmares that seemed to her like the film "Cape Fear" -- a movie in which a man released from jail stalks his lawyer's family.

She said she waited in the bathroom until Mrs. Welsh arrived to escort her to the state's attorney's office downstairs in the courthouse. They went to the courtroom with prosecutors and others and heard Judge Dudley convict Martin on three counts of sexual assault and two related charges.

'A personal touch'

Another witness, Audrey Jenkins, recalled going to court to testify against a man who killed her daughter with chloroform.

She said Mrs. Welsh would run from the courtroom to the corridor to her office to take care of witnesses, adding "a personal touch" to the rigid judicial process.

"I don't think I could have gotten through it without her help," said Ms. Jenkins, who relied on the victim-witness program through two trials for Melvin Robert Bowers, who was convicted in November.

Mrs. Welsh's predecessor, Shirley Harrell, helped her through the first trial.

Mrs. Welsh said she tries to give victims and witnesses what they need to deal with the stress of the courtroom.

"I think the main thing is that you have to have an insight as to how to handle each victim," she said from behind the desk in her office, which has an adjoining room with magazines and a television set for witnesses while they wait to take the stand.

"There will be victims who need hugs all the time, and there will be others who will need support without a hug," Mrs. Welsh said.

Although she has been doing this job for 2 1/2 years, Mrs. Welsh technically is a secretary. She took over when Ms. Harrell resigned to become a paralegal. Before assuming her current duties, she did clerical work in the state's attorney's office.

Colleagues say Mrs. Welsh's friendly, soft-spoken approach is particularly helpful to child sex abuse victims.

"If they didn't have Catherine to hold onto, they would be terrified," Ms. McLendon said. "Catherine is the comfort factor for the."

Special care

Mrs. Welsh said she teaches children about the court process before they testify, telling them what to expect from the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, and taking them on tours of empty courtrooms.

"The main thing you have to emphasize to children is to be honest, to tell the truth," Mrs. Welsh said. "The next thing we tell them is not to guess. We tell them that if you don't remember something, that's a correct answer. You shouldn't feel bad about saying, 'I don't know.' "

Male victims rarely reach out for her hand, she said. As examples, she cited high school football players testifying in an assault trial in June and William Arthur Helmbold, who testified about watching Daniel Scott Harney kill the woman he was dating.

"Men tend to stand back, and you just have to let them know you're there," she said, adding that Mr. Helmbold spent a lot of time in her office asking questions about the case.

Ms. McLendon said Mrs. Welsh is the link between victims and the criminal justice system, helping them keep abreast of cases from the pretrial stage through appeals and during the time an offender is in prison.

Said Ms. McLendon: "Catherine's the glue for the family and other survivors."

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