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Sexual assault victims now entitled to their own lawyer

By C. Todd Lopez Army News Service

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Victims of sexual assault now have the option to receive legal representation following a sexual assault.

During criminal proceedings, defendants have access to a lawyer and the state is also represented by their own prosecuting attorney, but the sexual assault victims have historically not had the benefit of a state-provided advocate as they move through the other complexities of the criminal justice system.

This is no longer the case.

Beginning Nov. 1, Service members who report  sexual assault can elect to have a Special Victims Counsel assigned to them. An SVC is an active-duty military attorney, provided at no charge to the victim, who will represent the victim's interest throughout the course of the legal proceedings that might follow the report of a sexual assault.

U.S. Army Col. Jay McKee,  Army Office of the Judge Advocate General lawyer, serves as the program manager for the Army's Special Victims Counsel program.

"Once the crime happens ... and the victim is ... taken into the system, they are notified that they have a right to an SVC," he said.

McKee said it is a misconception that the prosecuting attorney in a criminal case represents the victim of a crime. The prosecutor represents the government's interests, but in almost all cases those governmental interests are the same as the victim's -- to see that justice is done.

"The prosecutor wants justice. He is serving the community, he is serving the military justice system for good order and discipline of the force," said McKee. "And 99 percent of the time, that interest is aligned with the victim's."

Sometimes, McKee said, the victim might have concerns that require the assistance of an attorney.

For example, defense attorneys might want to bring  a victim's medical records or past sexual history into the trial, and that might possibly damage a victim's reputation.

"The defense is there to represent the defendant. They are going to put on the best case for the accused," said McKee.  "Sometimes is not in the best interest of the victim to undergo cross examination about past sexual history  in a public trial or to have [his or her] personal medical records be reviewed."

The SVC can help the victim make sense of the ramifications and help the victim understand what will happen. McKee said that while the SVC will not participate in the "adversarial portion" of a trial -- meaning there will not be a third table in the courtroom for the SVC and the victim -- the SVC will be able to make motions on behalf of the victim, talk to the Special Victim Prosecutor, the trial council, trial defense attorney and the staff judge advocate in terms of what justice looks like for the victim.

Right now, there are roughly 45 SVCs across the United States, and in Europe in the Army alone, and there will soon be an SVC in Afghanistan.

Special Victims Counsel attorneys are nominated for service out of the existing pool of military lawyers and serve for no more than two years. They are chosen after an evaluation based on their military justice experience, maturity and judgment.

Those chosen for the program undergo three days of training, including classes on professional responsibility, military rules of evidence, the parole system, forensic medical exams, rules for practicing as an SVC and classes taught by professionals to learn how to treat and talk with a victim of sexual assault.

Sometimes a sexual assault case is not tried in a military criminal court, but instead in a civilian criminal court. McKee said in those cases, the Army will also provide a special victims counselor to Soldiers who are victims of sexual assault. The SVC cannot appear in the local civil court, but can help explain the process and provide victims with legal assistance advice, such as helping them get a civilian restraining order against the accused.

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