The Surviving Victims: Guiding the Families of Homicide Victims Through the Criminal Justice Process

The Surviving Victims: Guiding the Families of Homicide Victims Through the Criminal Justice Process

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– [Allie] Good afternoon
and welcome everybody to the Surviving Victims:
Guiding the Families of Homicide Victims Through the Criminal Justice Process webinar. All of our participants are currently on listening only mode. To listen today’s presentation
make sure the audio button in the top left corner is green. If it is gray, click the audio button to unmute your speaker. If at any point during this presentation you have technical questions for us. Please send us an email
at [email protected] If you require closed captioning
I’ve included the link on the slide you see on your screen. As a note we will be
recording this webinar today. To kick off our event I
would like to hand it over to Sasha Beatty, Deputy General Council at the Association of
Prosecuting Attorneys. – [Sasha] Thank you Allie. Good afternoon everyone. My name is Sasha Beatty and I am Deputy General Council at APA. APA is a private non-profit
located in Washington, DC, serving prosecutors as well
as their law enforcement and community partners. Thank you for joining us at this Capital Litigation webinar today. This presentation is
made possible by grants 2018 CP VX K002, awarded by the Office of Justice Programs through the Bureau of Justice Assistance Capital Case Litigation Initiative. APA is very appreciative of
their financial assistance and commitment to improving
the justice system. Additionally, a huge thanks to BJA’s National Training and
Technical Assistance Center for providing a platform
for today’s webinar. Points of view or opinions
in this presentation are those of the presenter and do not necessarily represent the views of the US DOJ or the Association
of Prosecuting Attorneys. Today’s webinar, Meeting
with Victims’ Families will be presented by Bill Bunting of the Mecklenburg County
District Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr. Bunting is the homicide unit chief where he leads an experienced team of 10 homicide prosecutors. He was admitted to the North
Carolina State Bar in 2001 and has been an Assistant
District Attorney since 2006, prosecuting exclusively
homicides since 2011. Mr. Bunting has tried death penalty cases as well as non-capital murders, in addition to violent
crimes, habitual offenders, and trafficking cases. He is a member of the
Homicide Victims Support Group lead by the Charlotte
Mecklenburg Police Department. He also regularly responds
to homicide crime scenes and works closely with
investigating agencies to pursue justice in Mecklenburg County. And with that I will now turn
it over to our presenter. – [Bill Bunting] Thank you Sasha. Again my name is Bill Bunting. I appreciate you guys having me. Hopefully I have some things
that I can share with you that some of them may be new. Some of it may be different
than you’ve tried in the past. But hopefully you can walk away from here with a little something
to try in the future. As Sasha said here in Mecklenburg County I do have a team of 10 prosecutors who do nothing but homicides. And as of so far this year we’re having kind of a busy year. We’ve had 82 homicides in
Mecklenburg County this year. And that doesn’t even include all of our vehicular homicides and
justified cases that we handle. So we get a lot of
experience unfortunately in dealing with victims’ families and helping them through the process. And you’ll see that I actually titled this presentation the Surviving Victims: Guiding Them Through the Process. And that’s what they are. They are victims of homicides
as much, not as much as but they definitely
have significant effects and lasting effects on their family from the loss of their loved one. And they are our surviving victims and we have to keep that in mind. As I said I’ve been
doing, or Sasha said I’ve been doing exclusively homicide since 2011 and working with these
families has actually become quite a passion of mine. So why, if somebody could make it so that I could advance these slides. There we go. So why is it important that we improve our skill set for working
with victims families? First off… Okay, we got a little delay here. We’ll get there. First off, the victims’ families are going to be your stakeholders. They are your voters. They are the people in your community that you answer to. So they are your stakeholders
in this and making sure that they are walked through
this system is very important. Additionally, depending on
how your homicide plays out, you may need their support
for an eventual plea. Every state has different rules. Obviously here in North Carolina we don’t need the family’s permission to plead a case not guilty
or plead a case guilty. But we have recently had some laws passed. Marsy’s Law, many of you
may be familiar with that. But it gives families
the right to be heard at various court proceedings
including at an eventual plea. And we do have to have a judge sign off and accept our pleas. So it’s important that these families be brought along because
you may need their support when you get to an eventual plea. Another reason this is important is that you’re a decent human being. You’re doing this work I
assume because you care. And you know that these
families have a right to be informed. And one of the main goals of this process that I’m
going to lead you through. That we have in this office is to increase the confidence that these families have in the eventual outcome. And I think that’s
important because confidence in the eventual outcome is
going to increase their. It’s going to aid them in healing. They’re going to feel
like to the extent that is possible that justice was done. And to the extent they can feel that it’s going to aid in their healing. There is a multitude
of different ways that you can work with families. This is just a system that
I have developed over time kind of building on the backs
of people that came before me. I think the first thing
that you can do though, much like a doctor. Like a doctor’s hippocratic oath. Your first goal should be to do no harm. So you have to keep in
mind what these families are going through. And above all try to do no harm. Secondly to the extent you
can I think you’ll find that when you venture past doing no harm, that your actions can
have a positive effect on these families. So, the first thing that
you’re going to be doing is reaching out to make
your initial contact. You’re going to have
to give them generally a couple of weeks before making contact. If we can go ahead and advance that slide. Give them a couple weeks
before making contact. You’re going to want to try to
wait until after the funeral. Different cultures have different times that the funeral will take place. Law enforcement has been
their primary contact up until this point. They’re going to know more
about your victims’ families than you did. So work with law enforcement
to know the right time to reach out. The next thing you’re going to do after you reach out to them and the reason you’re reaching out to them is to schedule a meeting. You’re going to schedule
a meeting face to face. They need to see who they’re dealing with. Who the person on the
other end of the phone is. They need to meet you face to face. At that initial meeting
that you’re setting up now, invite law enforcement,
show that you work as a team with law enforcement. And during that meeting show confidence in your investigators. The confidence that they
have in your investigators will increase the
confidence that they have in the investigation that was done. And hopefully one day that will lead to increased confidence in
the eventual outcome. Like I said, confidence in the outcome is going to aid their healing. So show confidence in your investigators. But there are exceptions
to all of these rules and I’ll give you an
example from just last week. We had a homicide here in Charlotte. Actually it wasn’t even a homicide yet. The victim had not
passed, but it was clear that the victim was going to pass. And I knew that the
victim was from Maryland. I knew he had sons in
California and sons in Seattle. And so I reached out to my
law enforcement partners and I asked them if
they thought it would be appropriate for me to go
ahead and meet with the family since they were here in
Charlotte with the victim, so that they can go ahead
and see me face to face. And the detective had had
a lot of contact with them. And his read with that was that yes, that would be a good idea. So we set that up. I actually went to the hospital last week and met with the wife and the sons before the victim had even passed. And obviously I didn’t, I knew
what they were dealing with. I knew that they hadn’t made the decision to pull the plug just yet. So, I didn’t want to say that
I was the homicide unit chief. I just presented myself
as a representative of the District Attorney’s Office and let them know who we are. Let them see my face. We didn’t even go into how the court process would
work or anything like that. It was merely just to let
them meet me face to face. So that when we did eventually
have that first contact it would not be over the phone because I knew they were from out of state. And I did not want the
first time that they ever saw somebody from my office to be the day that we were walking into court
to take a plea on the case. So, there are going to be
exceptions to all of these rules. So we can go ahead and advance. Who should be present
at that initial meeting? Obviously your assigned
prosecuting attorney. Your law enforcement and your victim witness legal assistant. As far as the victim’s family
I think your primary goal should be to keep it small. The larger that group is that comes in the more chances you’re going to have that you get what I call the instigator. That is somebody who,
they’re tangentially related to your victim. They’re not as concerned
about getting justice for the victim as they
are about making a show of how angry they are about what happened. So that person can cause you
trouble and can cause you. It can interrupt you when you’re actually trying to convey information to the people that are there for all the right purposes. So if you keep it small you’re going to decrease your chances of
getting the instigator there. And it’s also going to help you avoid getting off topic. As far as the purpose
of the initial meeting. There’s several purposes but number one you want to begin developing
that relationship. This is your time to develop
a relationship with them and your time to begin
learning about your victim. You’re going to want to and
you’ll have the opportunity to explain the court process
and to explain your process. How you handle things internally. Explaining your process
is key in these meetings because as you proceed on down the line through this process, you’re going to be able to
tell them in future meetings, listen, that very first day that we met I told you I would do X, I did X. I told you I would do Y, I did Y. And the fact that you’re telling them now what you’re going to do. And you’re going to come back
several weeks down the line and tell them that you did what you said you were going to do. That’s going to help build that trust. The purpose of this meeting is not to talk about the details of the case. And you have to make
it very clear early on that you’re not going to be talking about the details of the case. And I think I have another
slide on that coming up. As far as the format
of the initial meeting what you’re going to do first
off is to make introductions. And a few years ago, it was after I had just wrapped up a trial and I realized that in prepping with my victim’s mother to testify at trial, I realized that was the
first time that I had learned anything personal about the victim. And I made a note then to
not let that happen again and I went back. And at the very end of this you’ll see an outline that we have for
these initial family meetings. We’ll have a link to that. But I added on to that
outline to make sure that we ask the family about the victim when they are in there
for that initial meeting. And you also, it gives
you a chance to ask them how they’re doing. It’s a good chance to
kind of break the ice. Get things moving, get people talking. And you know, like I said. You’re a decent human being so it’s important to remember to ask them questions like that. How are you doing? Because you don’t want to
get so lost in your job that you forget that these people have recently lost a loved one. So as I said you can then
ask them about the victim. You know, just some ideas. Tell me a little bit about the victim. Who raised them? Did they have kids? And that’s the particular question that I learned the answer to at trial. I did not realize he had two kids until I was picking a jury for the case. And I realized that that was unacceptable. And so we made the change to make sure we’re asking about these
at the initial meeting. You can ask what they liked to do. During this initial meeting
you’ll see on the form that I use and my team uses. There’s some blanks for you
to fill in everybody’s names. Everybody that you’re meeting with. There’s a blank for you to
write down the victim’s name because there’s nothing worse than to be sitting in a meeting
with the victim’s family and to space on what
your victim’s name is. At that point you have to start referring to your son or your
daughter or your husband and it just gets uncomfortable. So write them down
beforehand so that you can refer back when you just happen to space. But giving them a chance
to talk about the victim is going to get everybody talking. I will tell you that I typically stay away from questions about
what they did for work or where they went to school. At least in Mecklenburg
County it’s not unusual for our victims to not have a job or not have gone to school. So I will let their family go there if that’s something they
want to tell me about. But this is just as much
for you as it is for them. I have found over the
years that there are times when I need that extra motivation. When our victim got killed because he robbed a drug dealer last week, it helps me to know that
he was something more than somebody who robbed a drug dealer. It helps me to see him as a person and not the act that he did
that ends up getting him killed. And frankly sometimes when there’s just not something more there, this discussion will help you to at least realize that if you don’t feel like you can fight for your victim, at least you can fight for your family. So that’s just some of the benefits from talking to your
family about your victim. We talk in our meetings. We tell them that there’s not a lot that we can promise them
about this court process. But there are three promises
that I can make you. I tell them number one, you’re always going to hear the truth from me. You may not like what you
hear, but I promise you I’m going to tell you the truth. Number two, we’re going to hear from you at every stage of the proceedings. We want to get your input,
your input is important. I need you to know that there is. That I’m not always going to
be able to do what you want. But I’m going to hear from you at every stage of the proceedings. And the third promise that
I can make the families is that nothing is going to
happen without them knowing. And there are some exceptions to that. In North Carolina, at least
in Mecklenburg County, our autopsies can be requested by anybody including the media oftentimes. And we don’t get a copy of those autopsies until it goes out to the public. So I tell the family
then the one exception to that rule is the autopsy
is going to come out and I’m not going to be able to give you an advance notice to that. But those are the only three
promises that I’ll make them. That I will make to the family but those three promises say a lot. And especially the fact that you’ll always hear the truth from me. The key when you make these promises is that you have to keep them. And the dangerous zone
in these three promises is that you’ll promise the third promise that nothing will happen
without you knowing. Because you got to make
sure if you promised them nothing is going to happen
without them knowing. You have to make sure
you keep that promise. You or your victim witness assistant needs to make sure that
they are kept up to speed and that nothing happens
without them knowing. All this is to help build that trust and if you start breaking promises you’re going to go backwards. During that initial meeting
you’re going to tell them that you’re not going to
be going into the details of the investigation yet. And the reasons that
you’ll tell them that is because the investigation is ongoing. That you have not received or
reviewed the case file yet. I usually tell them, listen, I have read a summary of the case. I am generally familiar with the facts. But I have not received
a copy of the file yet. I have not reviewed it. That’s not unusual, it’s
important to tell them that it’s not unusual. Because you want to make sure that they don’t think that it’s taking an unusually long time
for the investigation to come together. But you need to let them
know that it’s not unusual that you haven’t reviewed the file yet. Tell them what your involvement
has been up to this point. If you responded to the
crime scene, tell them that. If you’ve consulted with
law enforcement on the case, tell them that. But make sure you tell them that you don’t have all the details of the case yet. And it wouldn’t be fair to you. It wouldn’t be fair to the case for you to start talking about it before you’ve had the chance to review every single thing that is
included in the investigation. So, speaking of details. You’re going to want to explain to them the ground rules on confidentiality. You got to make sure that they know that your ability to
speak freely with them. Your ability to share
details about the case, when you eventually get
around to doing that, is conditioned on the fact that they’re not going to share that
information with anybody else. One of the ways I do
that is by telling them that we as prosecutors are
under special obligations. That we can’t go out into the public and make comments that
we know could effect our eventual jury pool. And I tell them that
if I give them details and they turn around
and go back to the media and share that information
in the public domain then that could come back on me. It’s not that I’m afraid
of me getting in trouble. It’s just that the way
a judge could punish me for having shared information in a manner that I knew would get out to the public would be to take it out on the case, and I want to make sure that they know that I don’t want
anything to hurt the case. So generally, during that meeting, after I’ve explained that to them, I’ll ask that family,
so will all of you agree that you won’t share
anything that we talk about outside of this room. And I won’t make them show me hands but I’ll make sure I get a head nod from everybody that’s in the room. As far as dealing with investigators. There are times where
the defense investigators may reach out to your families. It depends on the facts of the case. Whether that’s more
likely to happen or not. One of the things I tell them is that they should not expect to
be contacted from our side by anybody that’s not in this room. And they should know
the names of everybody that’s in the room. Your victim witness legal
assistant, your name, your detectives’ names. And I tell them these are the only people that are going to contact
you from our side. If you hear from somebody
that’s not in this room, go ahead and assume that
they’re not on our side. And ethically, I can’t tell you not to talk to somebody. But if somebody calls you and
you’re not sure who they are. You can feel free to hang up and call us and tell us who’s calling you. We’ll be happy to find
out who that person is if we don’t know off the top of our heads. And then I’ll tell them, like I said, I can’t tell you not to talk to anybody but I can tell you that you have options. And that their options
include that they can talk to them if they want to. They can refuse to talk
to them if they want to. Or if they want us to be present when they talk to that person, just to give us a call and
we’d be happy to arrange that. After I walk through dealing
with the defense investigators I start to explain the court process. We have a number of different court dates. I know that every state’s going
to have different processes. But here in North Carolina
one of the first court dates we have is the court
date where we announce whether the case is going
to be a capital case or not. From there we have a variety
of administrative hearings. Here they’re called first
settings and second settings. But it’s all just administrative
hearings like you all have. At some point during this
process there’s going to be a bond hearing likely. From then we’ll move on to an arraignment and then possibly to a trial. I tell them at this point
that the ones that are going to be important for them to attend are the bond hearing, the arraignment, and the eventual trial. And I tell them that, I
make sure that they know that they are welcome to
attend any court date. But I want to make sure
that I’m valuing their time and I want to make sure that they have the time off of work available. That they’re not frankly
burnt out with coming to court when the days come when I need them there. Such as a bond hearing. Having the family sitting behind you in a bond hearing can be very helpful to making sure that the judge does not set an unusually or an
unacceptably low bond. And at this point I will inform them that our victim witness legal
assistant will keep them informed of all these court dates and will keep them informed of which ones that are important for them to attend. When you talk about a bond hearing here. When you’re just generally
explaining the court process. You got to be careful because the minute they hear a bond hearing, they might start trying to ask you about whether he’s going to get a bond or not. I try to stay away from discussion of whether the defendant
is going to get a bond. I know every state has its own set of laws regarding first degree murder bonds. But I try to stay away from talking about an eventual bond at this stage. If they ask, I’ll answer. And I’ll tell them that in North Carolina the only offense that
a judge is not allowed to set a bond for is first degree murder. But here in Mecklenburg County bonds are set in the majority of cases. Now it may be a really low amount, it may be a really high amount. But a lot of the times even though you’ve only read a summary
of what your case is, you may have a really good idea of whether this is going to be a strong case or whether this is
going to be a weak case. You need to start managing
expectations early on because when you effectively
manage expectations, the family will eventually,
if their expectations are unreasonably high
and they are not met, they’re not going to feel
like justice is done. But if you’ve got a heads up as to what your evidence is, if you know your case isn’t that great and you can begin
managing expectations now, you’re more likely that this family is going to believe at the end of the day that justice or as close as
you can get to it was done. So it’s important to go ahead and start managing expectations early. The next thing I’ll do is begin explaining what our process is. And the very first thing that I tell them, again, is that once we
receive the investigative file we’re going to start reviewing that. I’ll review every piece
of paper, every interview, every surveillance video. And when I tell them that, it’s true. I would expect, I know
for me I would expect all my prosecutors that we are reviewing every single thing in that file. It’s getting harder and harder these days, because now we’ve got
body worn camera videos, and there may be volumes of those. And when there comes a
day that I can’t look at every single thing in that file, then I might have to reevaluate that. But until that day comes
I’m going to tell them that we’re going to do, we’re going to review every
single thing that’s in there. It shows them that you’re thorough and it also helps the family understand why things take so long. Because this is a slow process, you know. For a plea if we can get
a plea done within a year we’re doing great. But it’s more likely a year and a half. For a trial in Mecklenburg
County right now we’re in the two to three year range to get a case to trial. So it takes a long time
and having families know that part of the reason for
that is because you’re thorough, at least give them some
understanding of why it’s taking so long. In North Carolina one of the first things that we have to do is make a decision though the statutes actually require us to have a hearing within 45
days of whether or not our cases are going to be
declared as a death penalty case. If we have the file, the
full investigative file within 45 days, we just got it. So we would not have had
enough time to actually thoroughly review that file
to make an educated decision. So number one I explain to
them that the first court date that we have is likely not
going to happen on that date, because it’s going to be
continued until a time that we have had enough
time to review the case. One of the things that
I’ve been kind of bouncing back and forth with recently
is whether to ask their opinion or their thoughts on the death penalty when I’m addressing the death penalty, this decision with them. I have decided not to. There was a brief experiment where I was asking their opinion. And what I found was it is,
at this point you’re only weeks away from this homicide. And their loss is still
too raw at this point for them to be making a
decision that’s motivated by anything less than passion. I also had discovered that these families don’t have the appropriate
frame of reference to be making, to really be giving a valuable opinion as to whether the death penalty
is appropriate in this case. They don’t know what cases you’ve declared capital in the past. They really don’t know what it means to declare a case to be
a death penalty case. And so I have ventured away from that. Instead what I do is plant
seeds and manage expectations. Here in Mecklenburg County,
we have out of all of our probably 130 or so pending homicides now, two of them are capital cases. It’s very rare that we
declare them capital. So I go ahead and start
planting those seeds and managing those expectations early on. How do I do that? Number one I tell them
that it is extremely rare that we declare cases to be capital. And I tell them a number
of reasons for that. Number one, the minute we declare a case to be a death penalty case, the defendant gets two attorneys and everything begins to go at half speed. I’ll let them know that
close calls in capital cases go to the defendant. I let them know that
capital verdicts are rare. And I give them some specific examples of cases that I have handled
that the jury eventually came back with life verdicts. I let them know that
because of the severity of that punishment, appeals and motions in a capital case mean that that case is never
really going to be over. And then I begin to get
pretty real with them. And I tell them that North Carolina has not actually executed
anyone since 2006. And so I would explain to them the difficulty of convincing 12 people that any defendant deserves to die. And I explain to them
that even if you were to manage to convince the jury of that, the fact of the matter
is that nobody’s actually been executed since 2006. And then I usually close
with letting them know that one of the concerns about declaring a case to be capital means that the case becomes about the defendant
and not the victim. The minute you declare
a case to be capital it becomes about whether this defendant deserves to die and it’s no
longer about your victim. And I try to tell them
that as much as possible I want this case to be
about their loved one and not the person that killed them. And I tell them that we
consider all of these things in making that decision. And once they’ve heard all
of that, my experience is that they are more than likely primed for your eventual decision that a case would not be a death penalty case. In the event it is a death penalty case, it would show them that you truly believe the case deserves to be capital because you considered all of these things. As I move on through the initial meeting I will explain our plea offer process. And here in Mecklenburg County and if you don’t do this I
would tell you to give it a shot because it’s a good idea. We have what we call
a round table process, where we have all of our, the assigned DA will present the case as
objectively as they can to not only all of the
other homicide prosecutors in my office, but we invite the investigating detective and their sergeant as well
as the chain of command over at the police department. And we all sit together in
one big room on any given day, there’s 15 to 20 of us,
and we discuss the cases. I explain to the family
that that’s the process that we use in determining whether or if to make a plea offer. It would be my goal in
this initial meeting that we don’t go down the road of whether there’s going to be
a plea offer in this case, even though we frankly
know we make plea offers in almost every case. It’s still too early, much
like the death penalty case. Things are too raw for them to start thinking about plea offers. And so I try to give them an idea of what our process is generally without going too far down the road and getting a lot of
questions about whether there’s going to be a
plea offer in this case. But we tell them that the
case is going to be presented to all of these people, to the experienced group of people. We’ll discuss the strengths. We’ll discuss the weaknesses of the case. We’ll discuss the best
possible result at trial, the worst possible result at trial, and the most likely result at trial. And then I tell them after all that, we will discuss what we think
an appropriate resolution to the case would be. And then once that’s done,
we’re going to bring you back in to talk about it. And that goes back to the
second promise that you made. That you’re going to hear
from them at every stage of the proceedings. One thing that I would
advise you not to do during this process. When you’re talking about
how you make plea offers and how you make that determination, do not talk about resources. Whether or not in your
jurisdiction resources play into the plea offers that you make. If you start talking about resources and how much court time you have, and how many prosecutors you have, and how many homicides you’re trying, that’s all they’re going to hear. So don’t talk about resources. That’s all they’re going to hear, and if they think the plea
is driven by resources, that’s not a plea that
inspires confidence, and it’s not going to, when you don’t have
confidence in the result it’s not going to aid their healing, like I said our main
goal is in this process. So I said that you’re
explaining your process. You’re going to tell them
that after the round table you’re going to meet with them. You’re going to share results,
you’re going to get their input. And like I said that goes
back to the second promise that you made them, that
you’re going to hear from them at every stage of the proceedings. And I’ll talk a little bit about how that meeting goes shortly. Just kind of some random
things to make sure you mention in that initial meeting. They’re already going to be questioning about when they can get their
loved one’s property back. You know maybe their wallet
got seized as evidence by the police at the crime scene. Go ahead and explain to them how property is going to be handled
once the case is closed. That will hopefully
put the question to bed and you won’t have to answer that question again until the case is closed. Outside of wrapping up the initial meeting can be a little difficult at times. Sometimes they want to
drag on with kind of random questions that you end
up having to deflect from. What I tell them though
is that I don’t give out business cards. You don’t want, my business cards have my direct dial on them. And you don’t want them
calling you directly. I stay pretty busy and if I have families call me directly, balls would get dropped. So I don’t give out business cards. I never even take them
with me into the meeting because I don’t want them
to see one and ask for one. Instead I funnel all
direct contact with them through our victim
witness legal assistant. And then I give them a
chance to ask any questions that they have. And to the extent I can
answer their questions I will, but like I said there’s
going to be a lot of stuff that you can’t answer cause
you don’t have the details on the case yet. They’re going to ask a few question and at some point there’s
going to be a pause. It could be difficult
to get out of that room because those things can drag. But when there’s that pause,
I look for the right moment, and I tell them just exactly this. I say the same thing every time. Listen, chances are
you’re going to leave here and think I wish I had asked X. That’s okay, we’re not going anywhere. You can call us anytime. And I make sure they know that. And it’s true, I may not be available but they’re going to call. They’re going to get the
victim witness assistant. If she doesn’t know the
answer she’ll get with me and we will get an
answer to their question. And that lets them know that
they don’t have to sit there and think up every question that they could possibly have right now. There’s plenty of time when
they eventually do have it. And I’ll tell you guys
this, I’m from the south. So kind of hugging is in my blood. I will hug mom every time. If you can make yourself do that it is a valuable commodity. Number one, mom needs it. She’s been going through a lot. Number two, there may be
some challenging times in your relationship
depending on the strength of your evidence. And it is really hard to dislike somebody that is hugging you. So I will hug mom after
this initial meeting. The next time I see her I’m
going to give her a hug. If I happen to see her at a homicide support group meeting, I’m going to give her a hug. Hugging mom is important. She needs it, and it’s going to help your relationship. So, I know some people in our profession can be a little awkward. But if you can make it
happen, make it happen. The next meeting that we’re
going to bring the family in for is our plea offer meeting. Again, I would have law enforcement there. It shows a united front
with law enforcement. If you did the round
table process like we do, they were there. If your round table was successful, everybody’s on the same page and thinks that this is the appropriate plea offer in the case. So I always invite law enforcement to that plea offer meeting. When you start that meeting, again, don’t forget, ask them how they’re doing. It’s important for them,
it’s important for you, it’s important for your relationship. Review the process that
you talked with them about at the initial meeting. That’s going to help
you build credibility. You’ll be able to tell them I told you I’d review the file, I did. I told you I’d present
it to my team, I did. I told you these detectives
would be there, they were. And I told you that after
we had that meeting, I’d bring you in here to talk
about it, and here we are. You’re going back through to tell them. It’s reminding them, you
made them these promises. You’ve held up these promises. And so it will help encourage the trust that you’ve been building
up to this point. Here’s a question that I’ve
struggled with over the years. When you’re having that
plea offer meeting. Should you build up to the offer? Should you explain the strengths
and weaknesses of the case and then tell them what the offer is that you’re going to make? Or should you just go ahead
and rip off the Band-Aid, tell them what the offer
is, and then explain the reasons for it on the back end? I think the answer to that, I
think there’s a real answer. And I think the answer is
generally you’re going to want to build up to the offer. When you rip off the
Band-Aid what happens is you risk them not listening
to your rationale. If you open that meeting with I told you we’d bring you in to talk
about what the offer is. The offer wasn’t going to make it. That may be the last they actually hear and listen to you from. And you know, if it’s not
an offer that they like. They can get up and storm out and you never even have
the chance to explain why. So I think the general best practice is to explain your rationale for the offer and then tell them what
the offer is going to be. There are times where
I have been called out. Family doesn’t want to hear it. They just asked me for what the offer is and those times have not
gone particularly well. I think at this meeting
you should remind them that you promised to be honest with them. You promised to tell them the truth even if it wasn’t what
they wanted to hear. And then you should share the facts that you have with them, reminding them that they promised that they wouldn’t share anything that you talk with them about in this
room outside of the room. I explain the strengths
and weaknesses of the case. I explain the difference between
beyond a reasonable doubt and probable cause. I explain to them the
difficulties sometimes in getting a unanimous jury
of 12 to agree on things. And I explain to them the potential for that one crazy juror. And in the appropriate case I’d give them examples of crazy jurors
that I’ve had in the past. I would explain to them,
especially if it’s a low number that you know that they’re not going to be satisfied with, that a not guilty verdict
means that the defendant walks. I tell them I get it. I believe he’s guilty of murder, otherwise I wouldn’t be
prosecuting the case, but I have to prove it. I will tell them that I’m
limited by the evidence and that he very well could walk if we have a trial in this matter. I tell them that he needs to go to jail. I explain to them that
I have a responsibility to this community to make
sure that I get this guy off the street for as long as
the evidence will allow me to. And that even though this offer does not get him off the streets forever, it ensures that he goes to
prison for however long. And so I explain to them
that I understand their pain, but I have a responsibility too. And my responsibility is to
get this person off the street for as long as I can. When you’re going through
this plea offer meeting, I think it’s important for you
to explain your plea offer, not just in terms of the number
that you have come up with but how you came up with that number. And in North Carolina we
have a sentencing grid that lays out the various
sentences for different felony classifications. I show them that. I give them a very
basic explanation of it. I show them how it works. I remind them at that
point that I promised that I would hear from them
and I ask for their thoughts and concerns. And you know, their responses
can range the gamut. I explain to them, especially
if they’re not happy about the offer, that the defendant may reject it. I’ll tell them that in a
particularly rough case I wouldn’t be surprised if the defendant did reject this offer because
a good defense attorney would explain the weaknesses in the case just like I just have, and that there is a chance
that this defendant could walk. And so he may not want
to take this offer anyway because he may be
wanting to roll the dice. If the victim’s family starts
making arguments to you, starts making legal arguments to you, I will oftentimes explain to them that those are the exact arguments
I’m going to be making to a jury if the defendant
rejects this offer and I get it. But like I said, there are risks in taking this case to trial,
and one of those risks is that he walks. And I would explain to
them that if the jury comes back not guilty, then the case is completely over. Without any… Giving them the kind of general
overview of double jeopardy. I think a family is
rarely going to be happy with an offer you make
because a lot of the times when these families do
come in losing a loved one, the only thing that they want to hear is that this person is never
going to get out of prison. And most offers you’re going
to make are going to be offers that has some daylight at the end of them. So the families are
rarely going to be happy. I aim for understanding and then when I’m wrapping up that meeting, again, I give mom a hug. I don’t have a whole
lot of tips and tricks for the plea offer meeting except a few. Care, be honest, be genuine. Know your case inside and
out, backwards and forwards, so that if they hit you with a question that you know the answer
and you’re not just BSing. Know when to let somebody speak. One of the nice things
about having law enforcement at the round table and
having law enforcement at this meeting is that
sometimes law enforcement can come in and explain things in a manner that you hadn’t thought to explain them. And again that can show that united front. Make sure you listen and then sometimes you’re just going to have
to take it on the chin. Sometimes they’re just
not going to be happy and they’re going to
need somebody to yell at. I have been that person many times. And I just try to remind myself that they have lost a loved one. And sometimes it’s just my
job to take it on the chin. As far as bond hearings. I will explain to them
before the bond hearing what our state’s laws
are for homicide bonds. I got into that a little bit earlier. I will use the bond hearings
to help manage expectations. If I’ve got a case that I
know is particularly bad. Bonds can vary a lot depending
on just who your judge is that happens to hear the bond hearing. If the bond amount is
lower than I expected, I can use that to help manage
the family’s expectations by telling them, listen, the judge set a bond at
this, that is a low number. That tells us that the judge doesn’t think the evidence is very strong. Even if I have a bad
case but I had a really tough judge up there, and he set a high bond on evidence that I thought was particularly weak, you can still use that because you know your eventual outcome
is going to be based on what a jury would likely do, and not a particularly good
judge for a bond hearing. So even if the bond amount is higher than I thought it would be, I can tell that family, listen, the judge didn’t have to set
a bond, but he did set a bond, and that tells us what his thoughts on the strength of our evidence is. So, whichever way it goes I can use it to help manage expectations
if I have a case that I know is particularly weak. Sometimes you’re going to
have to dismiss a case. There’s not a whole lot I can tell you about how to handle this meeting. When you’re bringing a
family in to tell them you’re dismissing a case. That’s going to be a rough meeting. You can tell them you did what
you told them that you’d do. You reviewed the file,
you round tabled it. Remind them that you promised
to tell them the truth even when it’s not what
they wanted to hear. Explain the evidence and
the weaknesses in the case. I would explain how it
reaches the standard for probable cause. I would go ahead and break into the 51% versus 49% for probable cause. But not reasonable doubt
and we’re not allowed to put a percentage on
it in front of our juries here in North Carolina. But I’d tell them 99% generally and I explain how this
case gets you past 51 but it doesn’t get you to 99. It’s important that you
have law enforcement support when you’re needing to dismiss a case. And hopefully if law
enforcement was present at your roundtable, they understand the need for
that and they can back you up. I also explain to them double jeopardy and the fact that if we were
to proceed on this trial, we’re going to lose, but if
we choose to dismiss it now, there’s always the chance
that something could change going into the future. And I tell them I don’t want
to give them false hope. It would take a substantial change. It takes substantial new evidence, but there’s a chance by
dismissing the case now, that the case could get better. That’s generally a hard meeting though. Other considerations, remember
you can’t fix their pain but you can help. It’s important to manage expectations because expectations that are met equals more confidence in the result. It is important to earn their confidence because confidence in you and your process means more confidence in the result. And more confidence in the result is going to help their healing. So final thoughts for you. I would tell you that this is
an emotionally draining job. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. And if you ever find
yourself struggling to care about a victim or about a victim’s family, it may be time for you to take a break. So you have to be as honest with yourself as you are being with
your victim’s families. We’ve got some time for questions. I think if you guys want to email in. Somebody will read those questions out. But I also, we included a link to the initial family meeting outline. I think they might be putting
that up on the screen here. You may be able to click
that and download what we use as a guide for our initial family meeting. So with that we can take some
questions if there are any. – [Allie] Thank you Bill for preparing such an informative presentation, and thank you to our listeners
for participating today. So we have reached the
question and answer portion. To submit a question to our presenter please send it to [email protected] We will be looking for those questions and reading them out loud. All participants will remain
in listening mode only during this time. So give it a minute to submit questions. All right so we have a first question. You discuss a lot of
useful tips for prosecutors when meeting with survivor
families pretrial. What advice can you give to prosecutors when you get all the way to trial and the verdict is not ideal? How do you work with victim families after the verdict is read
to manage their emotions, their disappointment,
and possibly their anger at getting a lesser included offense or maybe even a not guilty verdict? – [Bill] That’s a really good question. And I didn’t even think to put it in here. At this point if you’ve done all of this, you’ve got a relationship
going with the family. And I know at least here in Mecklenburg we don’t always try our own cases. So it may be that I’ve
got two other prosecutors from my team that are trying the case. And it may be that the original prosecutor who has the relationship with the family wasn’t even the one that’s trying it. But we try to make sure that
we have effective hand offs so that we’re kind of
transferring the relationship from the assigned ADA to the trial ADA. And you’re going to have a lot
of time with these families while the jury is deliberating. If you were honest with them when you had your plea offer meeting, and you discussed the strengths
and weaknesses of the case, you discussed the possibility
that it could result in something less than
first degree murder. So I think being honest with them about the facts early on will help you. I think during that break
while the jury is deliberating, you could reiterate the
possibilities for that. You know the tough thing is when you get a verdict like that, it’s disappointing to you
as well as the family. Not only are you concerned
about the family, but you’re kind of dealing
with your own emotions. I think you just have
to go back to relying on the number one thing
you have to do is care. And if you genuinely care I think that’s going to take you a
long way in figuring out the right words to say to the family. Unfortunately I don’t have any good quotes for you to use today. But just care and understand their pain. They’re going to be your top priority even though you may be
disappointed as well. Probably not as good
an answer as you wanted but I hope it was at least something. – [Allie] Thank you Bill. We’ll give it another minute to see if any additional questions come in. And as a reminder for
everybody on the line. If we’re unable to get
to your question today or you think of your
question after the fact, please don’t hesitate to send
it in to the BJANTTAC box and we will get you the
answer to your question via email later. We will also be sending participants a copy of the presentation
in a follow up email. – [Bill] I think I answered
everybody’s question in my presentation. – [Allie] I think so. – [Bill] Yeah, got ahead of things. – [Allie] All right,
well thank you everybody for joining us today. We’re getting close to four o’clock so we’ll start to wrap things up. As I mentioned before, if
you think of your question and would like to submit
it after the presentation please feel free to do so. And we’ll go ahead and
share the presentation out in a follow up email as well. Thank you everybody and
have a great afternoon.

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