Special lawyers assist sexual assault victims
U.S. Air Force Capt. Kristen Beck, Air Force Legal Operations Agency Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC), talks to a sexual assault victim on the phone at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., July 16, 2013. SVCs are experienced attorneys assigned to the victim to protect their rights and offer legal advice during a trial. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel/Released)
by Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
23d Wing Public Affairs
7/17/2013 - MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- For many victims of sexual assault, recounting the event during a trial can be a difficult experience, which causes many victims to file restricted reports, not report at all and sometimes drop out in the middle of a trial.
The Special Victims' Counsel (SVC) aims to combat these issues by assigning a special attorney to the victims themselves.
"We are not a party to the litigation," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Kristin Beck, Air Force Legal Operations Agency SVC. "There's the prosecutor and the defense attorney, but victims do have certain rights in the court-martial process. They have the right to privacy for a lot of things. They have the right to keep certain evidence out and to keep their mental health records protected.
"We just make sure those rights are being observed and exercised," she added. "We often argue motions on behalf of our client. We advise them on plea deals and bargains. Prosecutors can't advise victims. They represent the United States Air Force. SVCs represent the victims to make sure their rights are being protected, whereas the prosecutors make sure the Air Force's rights are being protected."
The program began as a group of 60 part-time SVCs, and later 24 of those were selected to take on the role full time. Beck was one of the 24 Air Force attorneys chosen by Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force Judge Advocate General, to become full-time SVCs.
"The SVC can be, and usually is, present throughout much of the legal process, which can be complex and confusing," said Maj. Jennifer Holmes, Air Force Legal Operations Agency Special Victims Unit chief of Policy and Coordination. "The SVC, who has experience with prosecuting cases, knows the process and what's going on and can keep the victim informed every step of the way.
"Additionally, there are some decisions that the victim must make throughout the process," she added. "The prosecutors often discuss the legal pros and cons of those decisions with the SVC and then the SVC can speak at length with the victim to make sure he/she is making a completely informed decision."
Holmes, who worked with Beck on sexual assault cases, also noted how important an SVC can be with protecting the victim's rights. Beck agreed that protecting the victim's rights helps ensure the trial is easier and more successful for the victim.
"A lot of victims decide to drop out of the court-martial process," said Beck. "When it went to court, it was just too difficult going through interviews, getting all the rape kits done and just with everything else they have to go through.
"Since this program was started, that number (of victims who drop a case) has gone down significantly," she added. "Every victim felt like they were getting the services needed to continue on with the process. And that ensures that justice is being done."
Beck says that although the program is new, the feedback has been very positive.
"So far, with all the feedback we've gotten the clients say they could not have gone through the court-martial process and investigation as smoothly as they did without the SVC," said Beck. "It seems to be very effective.
"During my last case, I was in the courtroom with the client and we held hands through the verdict," she added. "When it was a guilty conviction on everything, we were just sitting there crying. It was probably the most touching moment I've had being an attorney."
Beck is excited for the new assignment. She will continue to work on Moody but will move to a different building and have a separate chain of command.
"I'm really excited about it, because combating sexual assault is one of the big goals of the Air Force now," said Beck. "It's also exciting to have a more direct impact on people's lives. ... As an SVC you get to work directly with clients to see that impact on a daily basis, which is amazing."
Beck also said that the number of sexual assault reports has gone up since the SVC program was started. However, she warns that there is no way of knowing whether it's because there are more sexual assaults or because victims feel more comfortable reporting.
Beck hopes it's the latter, which will help prosecute offenders with the goal of eliminate sexual assault in the Air Force. The work Beck and the other SVCs do is another tool the Air Forces hopes will help achieve that goal.