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Victim Witness Unit aids people affected by crime

February 19, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Members of the Washington County State's Attorney's Office Victim Witness Unit don't portray themselves as victims, but often they put themselves in victims' shoes.

Jill Ritter, director of the unit, often can be found in the hallways and courtrooms of Washington County Circuit Court, offering her shoulder for crime victims to cry upon.

Two weeks ago, during the four-day trial of a man found guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Carl Anthony Wallace, Ritter sat by the Wallace family's side through the trial's every turn. She followed Wallace's sister outside when she began crying at the sight of her brother's bloodied shirt.

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Jennifer Bricker, the juvenile court victim witness coordinator, can be seen every Wednesday in court, checking in with witnesses and victims of crimes committed by children.

Gretchen Hill and Cindy Collins, both victim witness assistants, offer their help in any way they can to people affected by crime. Collins and unit member Mark Singer focus on Washington County District Court.

While much of their time is spent on the telephone with victims and witnesses, Ritter said most members of the unit can spend three to four days of their workweek sitting through trials and hearings.

Often their cards and names are given to people summoned to court for hearings. That usually is when their contact with victims and witnesses begins.

Some relationships between victims and the unit last longer than others because some cases extend far longer than others, Ritter said.

The unit is helping coordinate a Victim Rights Week on April 18-24 in Frederick County to recognize crime victims. Ritter said a memorial service will kick off the weeklong public awareness event.

"This job is not just a job," she said.

Each member of the unit has a unique combination of compassion and people skills, Ritter said.

Not all people want to be helped, she said. And, although more often than not people are grateful for the unit's services, members are not strangers to the occasional threat.

Bricker said their role can be difficult because they have to advise victims and witnesses of their legal options, but unit members have no control over the outcome of court cases.

"We can't always get them what they want," Ritter said.

Members said they often arrange for meetings between victims and prosecutors or with judges to talk about what they might expect from a case.

Bricker said, "We're here to listen and make sure what they want is heard."

Sometimes unit members stand up and give impact statements on behalf of victims.

Ritter said it's sometimes hard to hold back her own emotions while sitting in on cases, especially when children are involved.

Collins said it upsets her when she sees a jury return with a not-guilty verdict on a case she knows has adversely affected people.

Members of the unit said there's no preparation for a particularly emotional case aside from bringing tissues to court.

"When I have a bad day, I can't wait to go home and hug my kids," Ritter said.

Collins said, "It puts things into perspective."

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