Not even a broken arm and nose could keep Annette Ingham from her courthouse job: giving comfort to the victims of violent crime.
The victim-witness coordinator for the Spokane County prosecutor’s office tripped on a sidewalk while trick-or-treating with her childrens. Black and blue, her arm in a sling, she showed up in Superior Court the following Monday for the first day of the homicide by abuse trial of Jonathan Lytle in the death of his daughter, 4-year-old Summer Phelps.
“I just had to be there,” the former legal secretary said.
During the emotional trial, Ingham sat with Summer’s biological mother, Elizabeth Phelps. Ingham also coordinated witnesses for the prosecutor’s office, where she runs the county’s victim-witness program with a $385,000 annual budget. Most of the money comes from a $500 fine imposed on people convicted of crimes in Washington state.
On Nov. 14, when the jury pronounced Lytle guilty of Summer’s death, Ingham helped a sobbing Phelps out of the courtroom, giving her a private moment on a hallway bench and a few minutes of solace before media interviews.
In the nearly three years she’s worked as manager of the victim-witness unit, Ingham has seen a lot of sorrow.
She passed out boxes of tissues to the distraught relatives and friends of 19-year-old Jamie Lynn Drake at the 2007 sentencing of Drake’s killer, Kevin Newland, to 45 years in prison.
She kept reporters away from media-shy Jessica Kim, whose teenage brother, Bryan Kim, was convicted last year of murdering their parents at the family’s Mount Spokane home.
She also sat with Phelps through court proceedings for Summer’s stepmother, Adriana Lytle, who pleaded guilty to homicide by abuse in July for her role in the child’s death and will be sentenced Jan. 9.
Ingham and her staff of five advocates find translators for those who can’t testify in English, drive people to the courthouse if they don’t have transportation, arrange hotel rooms and flights for witnesses traveling long distances, and help people write victim-impact statements at sentencings.
They also help crime victims access other sources of assistance, such as the Crime Victims Compensation Program, a state effort to help offset the medical, dental and mental health consequences of being injured by violent crime.
“Seventy-five percent of our victims have never been through the criminal justice system, and they are overwhelmed. They don’t know what to do,” Ingham said.
The prosecutor’s office has a separate legal advocate for child crime victims – Stephanie Widhalm, of Partners with Families and Children, who works closely with the office’s Special Assault Unit. Lutheran Community Services Northwest also gets some state money for community-based aid to crime victims.
Not everyone thinks the county’s victim-witness program should be in the prosecutor’s office.
“It’s unfair. It’s always been a sore point with us,” said Spokane County Public Defender John Rodgers. Some states have separate offices to avoid the perception that the victim-witness office is an arm of the prosecutor, he said.
The public defender’s concerns center mostly on how witnesses are handled. Prosecutors obtain police reports weeks before the defense has access to them and send out letters to potential witnesses implying that prosecutors must be present at all interviews, Rodgers said.
“The prosecutor controls our access to the facts. We can’t talk to witnesses without their OK,” Rodgers added.
The rules for how the prosecutor’s office works with crime victims and witnesses are set by state law, said Debby Kurbitz, administrative attorney for the office.
“The victim has the right to assert that we are there,” Kurbitz said.
“We are mandated by statute to give notifications to victims and to keep witnesses and family members notified of what is happening. We want to make sure they are not re-victimized,” she said.
Ingham first came into contact with crime victims when she worked as a receptionist for the Walla Walla prosecutor’s office in the 1990s. She asked to work with them after seeing their pain and confusion, especially in homicide cases, which lasted as long as three years.
During the past three decades, there’s been a legal revolution in Congress and state legislatures as crime victims have successfully fought for greater roles in their own cases. The Washington Legislature passed a bill of rights for crime victims in 1981 and a constitutional amendment ratifying victims’ rights in 1989.
Before that, crime victims “had no role. They had no contact with the police or the prosecutor. They were tired of sitting back,” said Lew Cox, the executive director of Violent Crime Victim Services, a nonprofit group in Tacoma.
Cox, an ordained minister whose 22-year-old daughter, Carmon, was murdered in California in 1987, runs a support group that includes Elizabeth Phelps, who met Cox after Spokane Police Department Chaplain Ron Alter gave her a copy of his book, “Coping with Traumatic Death: Homicide,” after Summer was killed in March 2007.
Cox sat through much of the Lytle trial at Phelps’ side. Prosecutors had suggested to Phelps that she not be present during the most graphic testimony about her daughter’s death, but “she wanted to experience the reality of the whole crime and be in the courtroom representing Summer,” Cox said.
Cox praised Ingham’s work in Spokane County. “She’s very good. She’s quite experienced and she’s confident in her abilities. You learn something new from every homicide trial, and she’s seen a lot,” Cox said.
Ingham coordinated a county event in September marking the National Day of Remembrance for crime victims. She and other volunteers collected 333 donated pairs of shoes representing homicide victims.
An important moment for many crime victims stems from their legal right to prepare and deliver a “victim-impact statement” before a judge sentences a defendant. As at the sentencing of Newland, Jamie Lynn Drake’s killer – where more than 50 people wearing “Justice for Jamie” buttons cried and urged a lengthy prison sentence – it can be an overwhelming moment.
“Sometimes they start and can’t finish. We’ll take over for them,” Ingham said.
Rodgers, the public defender, believes the victim statements influence judges and lead to harsher sentences. “I’m sure they do, but I can’t quantify it,” Rodgers said.
Ingham said the statements “personalize the case.”
“It gives victims a name. They are part of a nationwide epidemic of people crying out about the injustice done to them,” she said.
Every homicide trial can have many victims, including families and friends of the defendant. Other participants in the legal process, including witnesses and jurors, also can be affected emotionally, Ingham said.
“You can have hundreds of people affected. It’s a ripple effect,” she said.
Despite the heavy work load and often depressing testimony, Ingham said she gets great satisfaction from her job.
“Walking out of my office knowing I’ve helped at least one person through the maze of the criminal justice system – that’s a good day.”