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NEWS | Oct. 18, 2013

Army's special victims prosecutors bring enhanced expertise to courtroom

By xxxC. Todd Lopez Army News Service

In 2009, the Army's secretary directed the creation of 15 slots for "special victim prosecutors." Last summer, that number grew to 24. These Army lawyers enhance the prosecution of offenders with increased expertise, unique training and specialization.

There are anywhere between 400 and 500 unit trial counselors across the Army. These are the lawyers at brigade level and above who prosecute offenders at courts-martial on behalf of their commanders.

These Army lawyers are expected to prosecute any offense in their unit, including thefts, physical violence, malingering and even murder, said Lt. Col. Alexander N. Pickands, deputy, Trial Counsel Assistance Program.

Many of these lawyers, however, may be on their first stint as a prosecutor, Pickands said.

"Those trial counsel have anywhere between zero and 18 to 24 months being a prosecutor -- which isn't a great deal," he said.

The Army's special victim prosecutors (SVPs) managed by the Trial Council Assistance Program, augment the sometimes-limited expertise of unit trial counselors in prosecuting a more narrow range of crimes, including sexual assault, child abuse, child sexual exploitation and serious domestic violence.

"They differ from the trial counsel in that all the SVPs are much more senior and experienced; they are nominated for the positions, and then they go through specialized training in addition to that," Pickands said.

The Army's cadre of SVPs don't serve particular installations or commands as do unit trial counselors. Instead, they serve regions that may have multiple Army installations and commands.

Of the 24 SVPs in the Army now, two now serve in Germany, with one assigned specifically to that country, and the other also serving units in U.S. Central Command. There is also an SVP in Korea who serves units there and in Japan. Additionally, there is an SVP in both Hawaii and Alaska. The reaming SVPs serve in the United States, with one being assigned to the Judge Advocate General School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Pickands said today there are now no jurisdictions in the Army without SVP coverage, resulting in a "better focus" on offender behavior instead of victim behavior, "which was for many years kind of the thing that discouraged most victims from reporting."

With the increased expertise of SVPs, investigations now look at histories of subjects -- perpetrators -- more closely, Pickands said.

"We're looking at making connections with previous victims of sexual assault, out of a recognition that usually if the behavior is predatory, there are other people in the past who might be identified as victims, which tremendously strengthens the evidence at trial," he said. "A lot of our cases are benefiting from a more thorough investigation that is focused on the accused rather than the victim."

Pickands also said Army prosecutors are now doing "a lot better in communicating with victims than we did in the past."

In the past, he said, he'd talk to victims early in an investigation, "then I probably wouldn't see that victim again until I was charging the case."

There might also be delays in the case, he said, which increases the amount of time where the prosecutor would not communicate with victims.

Now there is "almost continuous communication with the victim over the course of the prosecution, and that makes a huge difference because it improves the relationship between the prosecutor and the victim," Pickands said. "It increases victim awareness of the process moving forward, and confidence that there are many people working on the prosecution, and championing her account in court. And victims are better involved in decisions."

If the defense offers a guilty plea or another stipulation, victims are made aware of that.

Success of the SVP program is also measured in the cases that come to trial. Those cases, he said, have "much more detailed corroboration of reports."

"You can see over time somebody who is more experienced at prosecuting these types of cases will have many more points of intersection between other people's testimony and evidence, and the victim's account of what happened," he said. "I've seen that improve dramatically over the years."

Pickands said SVPs perform two functions for the Army: to help represent the government in prosecuting offenders for breaking the law and to help "improve the pool of competence in trial counsel in their area."

Being more experienced prosecutors, the SVPs help trial counselors improve their skills.

"They do a lot of training," Pickands said. "Some of that training is training by doing, by prosecuting these cases with more experienced SVPs. Some is formal training. I would create classes for trial counsel and for unit victim advocates and so forth. And some is informal training. If I saw a particular issue that kept coming up in cases in that jurisdiction, I would put my arms around the trial counsel there and give them a quick class on whatever that issue is."

Becoming an SVP
Pickands said SVPs are nominated for their positions and end up being interviewed by the Army's Judge Advocate General before being assigned. Afterward, there is significant amount of work involved before starting in their new position.

One of those requirements, Pickands said, included on-the-job training with a civilian prosecution office, "usually in their functional equivalent to a sex crimes division or special victim unit."

Pickands spent time with the Los Angeles County, Calif., District Attorney's office.

"The crimes I saw prosecuted there looked the same as those I have prosecuted for years in the Army," he said. "It makes sense; we are, after all, an all-volunteer force drawn from all of the same communities across the nation, who face these troubles every day. I do believe in the transformative power of the uniform, but it does not change people overnight, and it does not change all people."

Army SVPs must also participate in:
-- The Sexual Assault Trial Advocacy Course
-- Civilian sector training
-- TCAP-provided SVP conference
-- The annual National District Attorney's Association's Career Prosecutor Course
-- The TCAP's New Prosecutor's Course and Essential Strategies for Sexual Assault Prosecution training

"Many SVPs also have other advanced, specialized training, such as child-forensic interviewing, advanced victim-interviewing techniques, behavioral health issues in the criminal justice system, capital and complex litigation, and more," he said.