When Calvin "Eddie" Rouse's wallet and credit cards were unearthed more than 17 years after his death in his killer's back yard, Sheila Stahl was already on the phone with his family.
As the coordinator of the Victim Assistance Program for Burke, Richmond and Columbia counties, Ms. Stahl had been keeping close contact with Mr. Rouse's family well before his belongings, and later remains, were recovered in 1998, almost two decades after his disappearance.
Guiding families of homicide victims through the system is one of her specialties.
"We got with the investigators on the case and found surviving daughters and nephews that were left behind," said Ms. Stahl. "I was there when they found Eddie's wallet in the back yard of the defendant and stayed on the scene every day for three days while they recovered his remains."
Every night during the search, Ms. Stahl would report to the victim's family what had been found so they wouldn't have to hear it first in the newspapers, she said.
When the case was closed and Mr. Rouse's killer pleaded guilty to manslaughter, it was up to Ms. Stahl to let the coroner know where to send his remains.
But Eddie Rouse's relatives weren't the only ones helped by Ms. Stahl and her department. The Victim Assistance Program, consisting of three full-time employees and several volunteers, worked 1,174 cases between Oct. 1 and April 1 alone. Some 345 of the people with whom the program came in contact were surviving family members and friends of homicide victims.
As a department funded through county supplements and a federal Victim of Crime Act grant, Victim Assistance leads victims and their families through the court system, making sure they are aware of their rights.
Those rights, protected under the state's Victims' Bill of Rights, include the right to wait in a separate area from defendants and their relatives and witnesses during judicial proceedings; the right to file a written objection to any release action taken by the state; and the right to be notified by the state 20 days in advance whenever it considers granting parole or any other release of more than 60 days.
"A lot of the time, it starts with the sheriff's office," said Ms. Stahl. "The investigator on the scene will often give the victim one of our cards, or as soon as a perpetrator is found, we make contact with the family."
In the case of an unsolved crime, such as the killing of David Holt, the manager of an Augusta Sam's Club, Ms. Stahl said victims and family members are still entitled to some compensation.
"In the case of David Holt, even though no one has been arrested and we don't know who did it, we were still able to locate his family in Maine and South Carolina," Ms. Stahl said. "We send them news clips and keep them up to date with what is going on in the case."
Victim Assistance helps victims by explaining to them the legal process, notifying them of the purpose of each individual hearing and which ones they are expected to attend.
Many times, the nature of the case requires a certain sensitivity when dealing with the victim.
"Each case has to be handled separately," Ms. Stahl said. "For example, you wouldn't normally call a rape victim at work because the people at work may not know."
Victim Assistance, which began in Augusta in 1990, deals with felony cases in Burke and Richmond counties and both felony and misdemeanor cases in Columbia County. Every judicial circuit in Georgia except one has a similar program in effect, Ms. Stahl said.
Victim Assistance is especially helpful before arraignment, said Assistant District Attorney Kelly VanGelder.
"They do a lot of liaison work for us, particularly pretrial," Ms. VanGelder said. "Cases are not assigned an attorney here until after the arraignment, so they do a lot of work with the victim before we get involved. After the arraignment, they already have a relationship with the victim and can provide a personal touch."
Volunteers and coordinators are responsible for keeping up with phone number and address changes so victims can be subpoenaed for court. After sentencing, they provide the victim with information on the parole board and the Department of Corrections, which can instruct victims how to use a personal identification number to track an inmate.
Other times, program volunteers just try to keep the peace when the other side is staring and glaring during trial, Ms. Stahl said.
When Jason Kennedy's third trial ended in deadlock, the family of the 19-month-old girl he was accused of killing said Victim Assistance was there every step of the way.
"Before this trial, I didn't know anything about the legal process. I had never even been in court before," said Peggy Pruitt, the paternal grandmother of Caitlyn Cawthon, who died in 1996 under Mr. Kennedy's care. "They kept us informed of court dates and told us what we could expect from the other families. They were in the courtroom every day for three trials. It was incredible. I don't know what people would do without them."
Helping victims write Victim Impact Statements that are read to the parole board on their behalf is another important part of the process. When an inmate is finally released, it is up to Victim Assistance to notify the victim that the perpetrator has been paroled or made bail.
For the past 2 1/2 years, Augusta has also been involved in the pilot of the Victim Impact Panel, which takes crime victims into prisons to confront inmates with what it's like to be a victim.
"It's very gratifying to know that you are providing a service that there is such a desperate need for," Ms. Stahl said. "Without us here, a lot of victims simply wouldn't be able to cope. We have to educate them and tell them that it isn't like Perry Mason. They have to know what to expect from the system because often what they expect is not the way it is."
Scotty Fletcher can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 111, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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