Victims of violent crime turn to county program

LAWRENCEVILLE - Sheila Howell will never forget Nov. 8, 1999, the day her life changed forever.

Her 22-year-old daughter, Whitney Land, and 2-year-old granddaughter, Jordan, out for some mother-daughter time, were kidnapped from a Clayton County park and driven to Duluth. Each was shot multiple times, their bodies stuffed in the trunk of Land's car and set on fire.

Had her husband not needed her medical care, Howell would've been at Panhandle Park with her girls, enjoying the "freaky beautiful" day.

But he did and she wasn't; they died and she didn't.

They say that something positive can always emerge from tragedy, but Howell doesn't believe that.

"There's nothing ever good that comes out of somebody dying like that," she said.

From watching her daughter's killer make his first court appearance to hearing the guilty verdict six years later, Howell relied on a support system to get her through.

But this particular

supporting cast wasn't made up of family or friends, per se, but members of the Gwinnett County Victim-Witness Program. Formed in 1989 as a division of the district attorney's office, it is the second oldest such program in Georgia.

"Everybody there is wonderful," Howell said. "It's going on 10 years and still, I just really ... they never forget your loved ones. They touch your life in such a positive way in negative times."

The program, said Director Stan Hall, is designed to do what other areas of the justice system don't - protect crime victims' rights.

"Without taking away from the defendant's rights, there is no reason why the victim shouldn't have equal rights," Hall said.

Hall, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, said police officers - often "disciplined in their duties" - feel they are supposed to protect people and lock up the bad guys, plain and simple.

"They wouldn't pay much attention to the victims because they assumed someone else was taking care of them," Hall said. "Which would leave crime victims out of the loop altogether."

For a program Hall said was "born with a whimper," Gwinnett's unit has grown into a model emulated by other district attorneys.

The objective is simple: To pursue justice for victims of crime - particularly violent crime - and support them in their journey through the justice process.

"What we try to do is go above and beyond the minimum legal requirements, which basically just requires notification," said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. "We try to provide services above and beyond that and Stan (Hall) has done an outstanding job with that."

While an investigator with the DA's Office, Hall was assigned to do victim advocacy on a part-time basis. "Slowly but surely," he said, "it's importance began to come to light." Now, the program employs 10 full-time advocates and a network of multi-lingual volunteers who speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Islamic dialects.

With Gwinnett's large Hispanic population, advocate Lourdes Gonzalez, a Cuban native, is there to help Hispanic victims cope with language and cultural barriers.

"A lot of them are fearful and you have to work with them to get them to work with the system," Gonzalez said. "Especially if they came from a country of civil unrest."

In 1998, advocate Candice Pitman, eying a career as an attorney, began an internship with the office immediately after high school. After studying political science at Georgia State University and moving into a full-time position, she decided she could fulfill her love for criminal justice while serving others.

"In some small way I'm able to give back to the community and that's always a positive thing," Pitman said. "We're here for the citizens of Gwinnett and we don't forget that."

Advocate Tina McConnell also studied at Georgia State, earning her degree in criminal justice. In 2004, as a college sophomore, an incident would forever shape the way she sees crime victims.

One Friday night as McConnell was preparing to close the Christian bookstore she worked in, a man entered the store, pulled a gun and demanded money. After forcing McConnell and two co-workers into an office and ripping a phone from the wall, the man left as swiftly as he'd come.

"They never caught him," she said. "So, I figured, you know, we got no justice but maybe I could help get justice for someone else."

More tragedy

Howell feels like she was not only victimized by a cold-blooded killer, but by a system that saw two mistrials before then-27-year-old Wesley Harris was finally brought to justice. And by defense attorneys who "butchered" her victim impact statement. By a judge who told her that if she cried or showed too much emotion while reading that statement, it would be disallowed.

Finally, hoping to see Harris suffer the same sentence he imposed on her loved ones, Howell had to settle for life without parole.

"He gets to wake up every morning," she said. "They don't have that choice."

Since that tragedy, one of Howell's sons was accidentally killed by the very gun bought to protect the family after the murders. Her husband, battling illness, died unexpectedly.

Today, Howell finds herself struggling to pick up the pieces and carry on with her remaining son and his children, but said it's not easy. It'll be with a "heavy heart" that she'll one day show those grandchildren pictures of family members who left too soon.

Through it all, though, she has found comfort in knowing that there are shoulders she can lean on when it all seems too much to take.

"They really do care and I've made good friends with them," Howell said. "Through all of it, I never felt like my daughter and granddaughter were a file on a desk."

Through events like the annual candlelight vigil - held in December to memorialize homicide victims - she can continue the healing process while ensuring that her girls live on in spirit.

Howell's story, while tragic, is not unique. Hundreds of violent-crime victims will come through the county's victim-witness program; none will go nameless.

"We're here, all of us, to make sure the victim's aren't forgotten," McConnell said.

SideBar: History of victim advocacy

The first victim advocate programs in the nation were formed in the early 1970s to help ensure that victims of violent crime were included in the justice process.

Since then, federal and state organizations and programs have been developed to further victims' rights.

Here are some notables:

· 1972 - The first victim assistance program was founded in St. Louis.

· 1975 - The first Victim's Rights Week is established in Philadelphia; citizen activists unite to form the National Organization for Victim Assistance.

· 1976 - A probation officer in Fresno, Calif., James Rowland, creates the victim impact statement.

· 1984 -The Victims of Crime Act is passed to establish a fund made up of federal fines and bond forfeitures to support assistance programs.

· 1985 - The National Victim Center is founded to promote victims' rights and needs and to educate people about the effect of crime.

· 1986 - The Office for Victims of Crime awards the first grants to support state programs.

· 1987 - The first national toll-free domestic violence hotline is established.

· 1989 - The Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office creates Georgia's second victim-witness program under District Attorney Tom Lawler.

· 1991 - The United States Attorney General issues guidelines that establish procedures for the federal justice system to respond to victims' needs.

· 1994 - President Bill Clinton signs a comprehensive package of federal victim rights as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

· 1995 - Georgia enacts the Crime Victims Bill of Rights; the first class graduates from the National Victim Assistance Academy in Washington, D.C.

· 2002 - All 50 states, District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam have established crime victim compensation programs.