We often hear about a criminal defendant’s rights. Did you know that victims have rights, too?
Victims of crimes and court witnesses have several legal rights, which in Nebraska include the right to be updated as a case progresses and the right to be protected from intimidation, among many others.
In Sarpy County, an entire unit of the County Attorney’s Office is dedicated to guiding both adult and youth victims through the criminal justice process, ensuring they are heard and afforded their rights as spelled out in state and federal law.
“Our job is to make contact and to keep crime victims informed as their case goes through court,” said Jean Brazda, executive director of Sarpy County’s Victim Witness Unit.
“The people we help are victims of criminal mischief, like getting their mailbox destroyed, all the way up to crimes like first-degree murder. You never know who’s going to be on the other end of the phone or walk through the door.”
Supporting victims of crime
This week, April 19-25, is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. In recognition of the week, we’re shedding light on the unit that helps crime victims here in Sarpy County every day.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said the Victim/Witness Unit does an incredible job covering cases in nine courtrooms.
“With Victim/Witness, there’s continuity and there’s good people to answer questions,” Polikov said. “They try to lessen the fear of the unknown for a lot of folks. Nobody wants to come to court and be the center of attention and be grilled for whatever the situation is. Victim/Witness is a really important function of our system.”
The unit’s work covers many areas. Among them:
- Making sure victims/witnesses know their rights
- Serving as a liaison between victims, witnesses and the criminal justice system
- Requesting restitution, if applicable
- Escorting victims/witnesses to court hearings
- Offering transportation to and from court
- Helping prepare victims/witnesses for hearings, depositions and trials
When preparing for court, an advocate from the Victim/Witness Unit and a prosecutor will work together to give victims a glimpse of what court will be like when they testify. They will visit an empty courtroom with the victim on an evening or weekend so the prosecutor can ask sample questions and the advocate can provide support.
Advocates go over not only the mechanics of court and the terminology used, but also offer practical advice like remembering to breathe, which people can forget to do during high-stress situations.
“We want them to feel prepared and want them to know what to expect,” Brazda said.
Manny, a black Labrador retriever-golden retriever mix, is the county’s facility dog. As a member of the Victim/Witness Unit, he helps keep things calm and casual as people sit in meetings or await hearings.
The unit helps victims outside of court, too. Advocates assist with filling out protection orders, provide follow-up support and refer people to other resources, such as counseling and emergency financial services.
Staff members also will call a victim’s employer or school to ensure they understand that the person needs to be in court.
Last year, the unit worked with 2,994 victims. Staff members made 43,252 contacts, meaning the advocates had numerous meetings with the same victims – a testament to the relationships built and ongoing services offered to those who need it.
Advocates have continued to keep in touch with victims virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though many hearings have been postponed.
“The advocates we have are amazing. Everybody brings a certain skill to the table,” said Brazda, who’s been with the unit for 15 years. “I’m fortunate for the team I have.”
Meeting heroes everyday
The Victim/Witness Unit has five full-time advocates and two support staff. Most of the unit has a criminal justice, social work or human services background.
Kathy Healey, a victim advocate supervisor, said her love for her work has not let up since she started 18 years ago. She said she feels especially drawn to helping victims of sexual abuse.
“We meet people in usually the most traumatic parts of their lives, and we help them through the justice system, which can be confusing and take a long time,” Healey said. “But we watch them come out the other side and that, to me, is miraculous. They do such brave things, especially when preparing for a trial. The little heroes I see emerging, it’s just so amazing.”