SPOKANE, Wash – It's one of the hardest things a person can experience: losing a loved one to murder or being the victim of a violent crime. What happens in those few moments a crime is being committed can change lives forever.
That's where victim/witness advocates come in. In Spokane County, there are six who work as liaisons through the Prosecutor's Office to help victims – and their families – get the assistance and emotional support they need. They help them get resources to pay for the burial of a loved one, get counseling, walk them through the court process, and attend hearings with them.
Relationships that often last for years.
"We care so much about the people that we help, that we're pouring out ourselves as well," said Lori Sheeley, an advocate who works with the gang unit and felony crimes, like stabbings, shootings, robberies and property crimes. "I had the mother of a homicide victim last year after trial say, ‘I'm really going to miss you, you're like part of our family right now,' and that right there is why we do this."
And sadly, the demand for their support is overwhelming in Spokane County.
Sheeley and fellow advocate Heidi Wehde, who works with major crimes and sexual assault cases, is each working with about 300 victims right now, and combined, are handling about 15 open homicide cases.
Including the May murder of Sharlotte McGill; a homicide that's become one of the most high-profile cases in Spokane in recent memory.
When McGill's daughter wanted to attend the first court appearance of suspect Avondre Graham last week, the advocates helped protect her privacy, getting her in and out of the courtroom, and helping her know what to expect.
While advocates can't speak about specific cases, it's clear their work makes a huge impact.
"There are not nearly as many rights for victims of crimes as there are for defendants, and their voices need to be heard," Sheeley said. "They need people in their corner."
The advocates also help explain why the court process can sometimes take so long, helps them become notified if the suspect in their case is released from jail on bond, and helps them prepare for sentencing, when they're allowed to make their voice heard for the first time in the form of a victim impact statement.
"It's a time for them to stand up there at that podium and tell the judge how that crime has affected them," Wehde added.
But one of the most stingingly painful parts of the process is that justice isn't always served.
"The hardest part of my job, the thing that breaks me, is a bad verdict from the jury," Wehde added.
In her experience, that's most often been seen in rape cases, where the victim has already been hurt in the initial attack, then must relive the experience during interviews with the defense attorneys, may be re-victimized a third time testifying as a witness, only to be crushed by a jury that sometimes doesn't reach a ‘guilty' verdict.
"You know the evidence and you know what happened," Wehde told KHQ. "You just hope that somehow the victim and the family, and even within ourselves, we can get some kind of peace and think there will be some kind of justice in the long run somehow, somewhere, but it wasn't here."
Sheeley and Wehde are among the six advocates working at the Spokane County Courthouse.
They tell KHQ that they work so closely with victims and their families – and often for so long – that they form lasting relationships with them.
One victim even wants to become an advocate herself, to make the process easier for others who find themselves in the same unfortunate position in the future.
Learn more about the work the advocates do at: http://www.spokanecounty.org/prosecuting/victimwitness/content.aspx?c=1072