News: New special victims’ counsel to assist victims of sexual assault
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Blair Heusdens
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Soldiers and airmen in the Minnesota National Guard now have an additional resource in the fight against sexual assault. Minnesota is one of the first states to implement putting a Special Victims’ Counsel into place to provide legal assistance to victims of sexual assault. The Minnesota National Guard recently hired Capt. Peter Williams to serve in this new position.
“The special victims’ counsel are advocates for the victims to hopefully speak for them when they can’t, to empower them and to give them the strength to make it through so we can bring their perpetrators to justice,” said Williams.
Special victims counsel have experience trying cases in both military and civilian trials. They understand the legal process and are able to guide victims through what can often be a long and difficult fight to bring a perpetrator to justice.
“It’s strengthening what we can and can’t do and how much more we’ll be able to protect our victims legally from being taken advantage of,” said Rae Schwartz, the Minnesota National Guard Joint Force Headquarters Sexual Assault Response Coordinator assistant.
One thing the Special Victims’ Counsel will work to minimize is how many times the victim will have to tell their story. During the trial process, victims often have to re-live the experience several times in interviews with medical, legal and law enforcement. The Special Victims’ Counsel will work to support victims through the legal process and inform them of their rights.
“The problem was that when we were trying these people for sexual assault, these victims had to go through multiple interviews, they had to relive their story multiple times,” said Williams. “Part of our job is to step in and say, ‘You’ll still have to tell you story, you’re the key witness in a trial,’ but we’re trying to limit some of the impact on those victims by assisting them through the process.”
The legal process for prosecuting sexual assault cases can often be daunting and confusing for victims. Most Judge Advocate General, or JAG, officers in the military work for commanders and are required to inform them of incidents that happen within their command. The Special Victims’ Counsel, however, has the ability to keep the confidentiality of the victim and advise victims even if they want to keep their case restricted.
“We’re able to explain to victims how the process works,” said Williams. “When it comes to how a court martial works, how an administrative separation works or a criminal trial works, I think I’m able to answer some of those questions and then they don’t have to go through the chain of command to talk to the JAGs, they can come right to me.”
For Williams, this new role is something he is passionate about. He wants to make sure every victim is heard and every perpetrator knows that this position is a sign that the Minnesota National Guard is serious about prosecuting offenders.
“If you sign up to defend your country and to risk your own life, we’re going to do what we can to protect you,” said Williams. “You shouldn’t have to be running from your fellow Soldiers and Airmen; that is inexcusable.”