JAG School trains Special Victims' Counsel attorneys

by Rebecca Burylo
Air University Public Affairs

5/31/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- In an effort to decrease sexual assault crimes, encourage reporting and give a legal voice to victims of such crimes, Maxwell hosted a course last week for the Special Victims' Counsel, or SVC, at the Air Force Judge Advocate General's School.

Launched in January, the SVC program provides legal representation and advice for sexually assaulted victims in the Air Force.

The lectures throughout the week included briefings detailing the role of the SVC during the trial and events that may occur afterward, discussions on how to effectively interact with their clients and exercises demonstrating how to advocate the needs of clients during a court- martial.

Students were taught how to cultivate interpersonal relations, be empathetic and afford their client as much control over the situation and outcome as possible. They also were advised in ways to prepare the victim for what might happen before, during and after a trial.

Captain Seth Dilworth became an SVC in January and is currently representing a victim in a sexual assault case. Dilworth said he hoped to walk away from the classes with two hings.

"One, logistical preparedness; how is [SVC] going to be set up, the logistical structure of how this is going to work," he said. "The second thing is a better capability to help our clients, the victims in these cases, be prepared. Our job is to enable them and help them get through a court-martial process and to hopefully come out of that feeling like they were treated well."

Shame, the stigma of being a victim and the fear of being treated badly prevent many victims of assault from reporting, according to instructor and SVC program chief Lt. Col. Dawn Hankins.

She said that the SVC allows victims to feel safe and comfortable with reporting.

"That's really what it comes down to," Hankins said. "Can [victims] trust when they come forward that they're going to be treated with respect, that they're going to be treated with dignity and that they know what's going to happen to them once they report?"

That is the question that Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force judge advocate general, initially investigated to see how the military judicial system could do more to take care of victims after reporting their experience. He said the reason why the SVC program was developed was to maintain the victim's interests, keep Airmen from feeling re-victimized and developing trust and confidence in this process.

"So the question became could we become the wingmen that we said we always were in every other instance, for victims of sexual assault without negatively impacting the fundamental fairness, the rights afforded to the accused in a court-marital," he said. "Could we do it? The more we looked at it, the more we came to the conclusion that yes we can do both. There is a way."

Previously in sexual assault cases, only two sides were heard, the individual accused of the sexual assault as the defense and the United States government as the prosecution. The victims' individual rights were being lost, and they were often times forced to relive their trauma in front of the court, officials said.

Under the SVC program, attorneys independent of the prosecution and the defense are assigned to the victim, and the victim's personal interests become their sole responsibility.

As a protector and an advocate for the victims, the SVC fights for them in court, defending their needs, their interests and their rights as well as counseling them during interviews and guiding them through the court-martial process. The SVC is not there to "win" the case, but rather trying their best to meet the wishes of their client.

By reminding the court of the victim's legal rights to privacy, the SVCs are empowering the victim, said Hankins.

"The more you can empower a victim to feel like they have some sense of control over what's happening to them, not that they get a final say, but they want to be able to have the opportunity to be heard. I think that their voice was just getting lost in the system," she said.

As of May, 305 victims have been represented through the SVC program.