Special victims' counsel steps forward against sexual assault

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- When Maj. John Bellflower looked across the courtroom where a court-martial for an alleged sexual assault was taking place, he saw the defendant at a table with his two lawyers and three attorneys representing the Air Force at another table.

So why not have legal counsel for the alleged victim?
That's when the importance of the Air Force's new special victims' counsel really hit Bellflower, the 81st Training Wing's deputy staff judge advocate and a newly-trained SVC. Bellflower said the Air Force is the only military service that has implemented such a program.

"There are really only two parties to this type of case - the accused and the government," Bellflower explained. "But the victim is an important, crucial witness, and now there's an attorney to represent the victim's interests."

As of Jan. 28, Airmen and other eligible persons who report that they are victims of sexual assault may be eligible to be assigned a personal attorney, an SVC, at Air Force expense. SVCs are active-duty judge advocates whose sole role is to represent victims in a confidential, attorney-client relationship through the investigation and prosecution process.

In Phase I of this program, 60 military attorneys went through three days of training at the judge advocate general school at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., before beginning work as an SVC. Each is an experienced litigator with courts-martial experience who was hand-selected by the Judge Advocate General of the Air Force.

"By 2014, the goal is to have 60 full-time SVCs with 31 paralegals to provide support," Bellflower said. "Right now, it's more of a part-time assignment - when we have a client, that's all we do, but when I'm not working on one of these cases, I still do my 'day job' as the wing's deputy staff judge advocate."

The chain of command for an SVC runs through the Air Force Legal Operations Agency. This independence, similar to that of the Area Defense Counsel that represents military members charged with crimes, ensures that no one in a victim's or perpetrator's chain of command will influence an SVC's representation of their clients. For that reason, Bellflower counsels victims from other bases in the region, but not Keesler. He is currently working with three clients.

Bellflower said victims should always route their requests through the base sexual assault prevention and response office, not directly to him.

"If we have a case that we're trying on this base, I'm part of the prosecution, so I can't serve as an SVC here," he explained.

Sandra Browne, Keesler's sexual assault response coordinator, said that once her office completes a referral form for a victim, it's forwarded to the base legal office and then sent to AFLOA. The agency assigns an SVC within the region where disposition will occur. Then the client gets a call from the SVC to initiate the legal representation process.

"As much as we rely on our network of victim advocates, they don't have a comprehensive knowledge of the law," Browne commented. "The SVC can provide excellent advice to our victims, advise them of their rights and let them know that they aren't required to answer particular questions that the defense counsel may pose."

"An alleged offender has the ADC and has the right to remain silent - the victim is sometimes lost in the process," said 1st Lt. Tina Tissot, deputy SARC. "The SVC looks out for the interest of the victim and provides another avenue of complete, confidential communication."

Bellflower, a seasoned prosecutor, said serving as an SVC has given him a different view of sexual assault cases.

"Sometimes prosecutors are so intent on getting a conviction that it's possible to lose sight of the human factor," he pointed out. "If you're not cautious, that responsibility can make you look at a victim as just another piece of evidence. An SVC sees that human factor much more clearly than a prosecutor might."

SVCs cover the full scope of their representation at the first meeting with a client. They can provide advice to clients and advocate their interests to investigators, trial counsel, defense counsel and commanders. By phone or in person, SVCs can attend interviews the victims have with investigators, trial counsel and defense counsel. They can answer questions their clients have about the investigatory and military justice processes and protect the privacy interests of victims.

Typically, an SVC already has a copy of the accused's statement that's been provided before an initial meeting takes place.
"That way, I don't have to say, 'Tell me what happened on that terrible night' - that would be just one more dagger," he said. "The first time I told a client I already had the general facts, there was a huge sense of relief - she was glad she didn't have to go through every nitty-gritty detail again."

Sometimes Bellflower still has to gather more specifics. He goes through the elements of the charged offense with the client, explaining why certain things need to happen. He also advises clients of their rights and the evidentiary rules regarding prior sexual history of the victim, the use of psychiatric records and potential victim misconduct associated with the sexual assault. When such issues arise, Bellflower outlines the various courses of action and potential tools available to prevent the disclosure of such information. However, he is careful to advise that it is the judge that makes a final ruling on whether such information can be disclosed if a case proceeds to trial.

Sexual assault prevention and response program specialist Barry Newman said he's only had one case so far in which an SVC came to Keesler to meet with a client and her victim advocate.

"The feedback from the victim advocate was that the client really appreciated having that service available," Newman commented. "The victim advocate said he wished the SVC program had been in place long ago."

"From what we've seen, SVCs are very responsive to the needs of the victim, even in a situation where the program start-up was going to coincide with a court-martial," Browne remarked. "The SAPR office and JA were able to act quickly to obtain an SVC who was then able to do the pre-work to be able to help the client prepare for the court proceedings. SVCs take their roles very seriously.

"Court can be such an adversarial process," she pointed out. "It's good for victims to have someone there who 'has their back.'"

"The family advocacy program staff applauds the new program as well," said Paula Spooner, family advocacy outreach manager. "Sometimes people don't realize that sexual violence can occur within the context of committed relationships - couples who are living together, engaged or married.

"When we receive those types of referrals, we have our domestic violence victim advocate and treatment manager intervene with supportive services and clinical services," Spooner continued. "As Ms. Browne stated, however, we needed that critical 'missing link' to bring it all together. The implementation of the SVC program is exciting and definitely a move forward for victims."

Bellflower said empowering victims of sexual assault is a positive example of the Air Force's wingman concept.

"We're supposed to take care of our brothers and sisters," he stressed. "When you're able to help them understand the process, they feel like they're being cared for. I can't guarantee a verdict, but I can provide advice that allows my clients to make informed decisions about what they want to do and I can advocate for them.

"I'm sold on this new program," Bellflower added. "It won't get us to zero sexual assaults, but it's designed to give victims 100 percent satisfaction with the process. If clients understand the how, what, when, where and why of the process and feel like they've gotten a fair deal and are comfortable with it, then I've done my job."