DA's office celebrates 10 years assisting victims

COVINGTON - Crime leaves a bitter aftertaste. And, depending upon the severity of the crime, the term "victim" can be applied not only to those who suffer immediate injury, physical or financial, but to their loved ones and the community, as well.

The Newton County District Attorney's Office is all about securing justice under the law for the criminal, but this week they are also celebrating 10 years of offering assistance and a helping hand to the victims and witnesses of crime and their families. National Crime Victims' Rights Week is being celebrated around the country through Saturday.

District Attorney Ken Wynne explained that his office is mandated by the state to provide assistance to victims of crime - "all victims of all crimes, from misdemeanor theft to death penalty cases," he emphasized. A staff of three offered assistance to 2,200 victims last year.

The staff is headed up by Victim Services Director Leslie Smith, who is assisted by Sharon Y. Polite and Shay Payne.

After an arrest is made, the DA's office usually receives a case within five to seven days and the long, and sometimes tedious, judicial process begins.

"The first thing we do is make an initial contact and let the victims know who we are, what we can assist them with," Smith said. "We get information into their hands that will let them know what they can expect from the program."

Depending upon the nature of the crime, victims may turn to Smith and her staff for such important things as translations of the meaning of legal terms and an understanding of what to expect as a case goes forward, counseling and even friendship. Then again, Smith's staff may be called upon to provide such mundane necessities as transportation or baby-sitting.

"I don't see how they do what they do," Wynne said. "(They) definitely don't just work 9 to 5. The attorneys don't have a lot of time to sit down and explain things maybe the way they should be explained and that's a lot of what they do ... and they do sit and listen. A lot of times that's all that's needed is for someone to listen to the (victim), and they're able to do that. They take a load off of us. If we didn't have them, there's no way we could provide the services that we are required to provide."

Wynne said one of the chief ways the staff helps the attorneys is that they're able to talk with the victims on their level.

"The attorneys are dealing with the law aspect. They fill us in on what's going on and we, in turn, break it down and tell the victim or witnesses what's happening," Smith said.

Smith, who said she was raised in the sheriff's house (her father is former Sheriff Gerald Malcom), began working in the District Attorney's office in the early 1990s when Alan Cook was DA. He saw the need for someone to handle victim assistance and obtained a grant in 1998 to begin the program for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit.

"(The grant) is about $70,000 and that's divided equally between Newton County and Walton County, so that grant doesn't even pay for one position. So what we have done is with the crime victim surcharge money we use that to fund the positions here," Wynne said.

According to the Official Code of Georgia Section 15-21-130, an additional 5 percent penalty is to be added to fines imposed by courts that are to be used to fund victim's assistance programs.

Smith said she worked in the DA's office from 1993 to 1997 as a legal assistant in the investigation department. When calls came in from victims or witnesses needing assistance, they usually were routed to her.

"I guess I was doing victim's witness before there was a victim's witness program," she said.

Smith left the office in 1997, and when she came back on a part-time basis, she was assigned to the Victim Witness Assistance Program that was by that time fully established. When the former director left five years ago, she was appointed director.

"That's what I enjoy and that's where my heart is. I feel like I found my place. I love it," Smith said.

She admits the job can be emotionally draining. "Being able to leave it here (the office) is probably the most challenging part of the job," she said. "It does get to you, but you can't let yourself get so caught up with one certain case because there are 100 more waiting on your desk."

She said the toughest cases are those involving children and the elderly.

"I've noticed over the last few years my heart has been breaking for elderly people," Smith said. "Absolutely my heart goes out to the children and to elderly victims who have worked their entire life to take care of their family and then when they're bedridden and in their time of need, sometimes it's their family members who are taking advantage of them."

She said her philosophy is to do the very best she possibly can, "plus more," to ensure things run smoothly for those she assists.

"I don't want anybody to ever come to me and say, 'You didn't tell me that,' or even worse, 'You lied to me.' We want to help them to find out everything there is to know up front; tell them everything we can legally tell them up front, so they're prepared to deal with it."

This year's theme for National Crime Victims' Rights Week is "Justice for Victims, Justice for All." For more information, call the Newton County DA's Office at 770-784-2070.

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com.