Advocates guiding light in storm for victims, witnesses of crimes
Helping victims and witnesses cope with stressful situations into which they’ve been thrust is what advocates Judy Martin and Vicki Jones do every day. And like many employees in the Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office, much of their work in the past year has been focused on the Michael Stagner murder case.
Stagner is accused of killing four Mexicans and wounding three others last July 3. Since then, Martin and Jones have been helping the families of the dead and the survivors cope, as well as helping witnesses deal with their new roles.
Martin is the program coordinator for the victim and witness assistance program for the Ninth Judicial District. Jones – the only English-Spanish bilingual person in the DA’s office – is a victim and witness assistant.
The victim and witness assistance program was established in 1982 to help crime victims and witnesses to get the support and assistance they need during the court process. For 20 years, the program has been a part of every Colorado district attorney’s statutory duties.
The goals of people such as Martin and Jones are fivefold: they are charged with providing information about specific cases, property return, restitution, crime victim compensation and referral to other agencies that can help.
“I met the families days after the incident,” Martin said of the July 3 shootings. “We were trying to line up funeral services and transporting bodies down to Mexico … I don’t know if you’re aware, but you can only put one body on a flight.”
As one can imagine, the days that came in the wake of the killings were hectic for both Martin and Jones, but at the same time they were tragic and confusing for the families of the victims.
“For some families, one person is the contact. For others, we’ll send out six letters. I want people to be informed – that’s the whole reason for the victim witness program,” Martin said.
After each hearing on the case, Jones translates the happenings of the hearing into Spanish, then the women send them out. Sometimes victim family members are present at the hearings.
“At the beginning, we had a lot of people there, so we used a closed-circuit TV,” Jones said. “When there’s less people there and the judge allows, I translate right then and there.”
Jones said it can be difficult dealing with such a large case and having so many victims and witnesses, not to mention the language challenge.
Also, the differences in Mexican and American law can create confusion.
“Sometimes we’ll go over it many times until they get a grasp of it,” she said.
Martin agreed that some aspects of American law can befuddle people who are used to such a different process in Mexico, especially, she said, the concept of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
“I think it’s very complicated to understand in English,” Martin said. “And the concept does not even exist in Mexico.”
She and Jones have taken hours and hours trying to explain the concept of insanity and competency, as well as the myriad of other questions that have been asked.
“We’ve had homicides, but not with this many people involved,” Martin said. “We’re talking maybe 700 hours (of time spent on the case) between the two of us.”
During the course of all those hours, Martin and Jones have both become close to victims’ families.
“You definitely develop a relationship with them,” Jones said. “I think you have to gain their trust and I think that’s been a very important part of everyone involved in the case.”
Aside from their stated duties, the Stagner case has resulted in some unexpected – and sometimes difficult – tasks.
Jones said those tasks have included guiding victims and their families to resources, counseling their children, helping them with food and helping relatives to pick up deceased bodies.
“But whenever you feel like you really have made a difference, that’s great,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what keeps us doing this work.”
When she was hired by the district attorney’s office in 1998, Jones brought a wealth of both international and local experience with her. Born in California, she grew up overseas in Korea, Africa, Iran, Paris and Mexico.
“It taught me to be aware that each culture has several different things you need to be careful with or aware of when dealing with people from those countries,” she said.
Upon moving to Colorado, she became a teacher of basic adult education, teaching English as a second language in Fort Collins, where she lived for 24 years. Jones then moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1991, landing a job in the Glenwood Springs Municipal Court.
“One of the things I’ll do now is sit down and write letters to the victims,” she said. “The last (hearing) I sent out about 24 letters.”
Jones tries to write the letters the same day as each hearing takes place.
Martin described her abundance of experience helping those who are less fortunate. Before joining the Ninth District Attorney’s Office more than five years ago, she helped administer dentistry for the handicapped and worked with migrant farm workers in the Pacific Northwest.
“That job taught me how to work with translators,” Martin said.
The Stagner case, however, is the largest single case she’s ever had to work on. And while the Stagner case takes up a large share of their time, Martin said it is by no means the only case they’re working on.
“But I’m not handling it alone,” she said.
Martin, like Jones, said one of the most difficult aspects of the case is the language barrier.
“In most cases, I can actually talk to the victim. But everything in this case goes through a translator.”
In the end, Martin said, she hopes the victims get some satisfaction and some closure.
“The thing about Spanish families is they open their hearts and trust you,” she said. “They want justice and we want justice for them.”
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