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Beverly Hills Operation Eases Fears of Judicial System : Court Program Provides Crime Victims, Witnesses With a Shoulder to Lean On

January 14, 1988|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

Help for victims and witnesses sometimes overwhelmed and frightened by the criminal justice system will be offered by a Beverly Hills community service organization.

Law Guild of Beverly Hills, which was once known as Beverly Hills Lawyers' Wives, will run a branch operation of a program designed by the district attorney's office to alleviate fears of the system. At least two guild volunteers will be available every morning and afternoon to provide support ranging from holding the hand of a rape victim while she testifies in court to baby-sitting for a witness. Volunteers will also help coordinate the court appearances of witnesses who have busy schedules.

Earlier Effort Failed

The guild will also assist victims and witnesses who are eligible for compensation from a state fund derived from a percentage of fines and penalties levied against convicted criminals.

The guild, which also runs tours of the courthouse and awards scholarships to women law students, operated a similar program between 1980 and 1983, but expects its current effort to be more successful.

Unlike the previous attempt, the group made sure it had the support of local law-enforcement agencies and city officials before beginning.

The cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, where most of the victims and witnesses served by the branch operation live, have agreed to pay its monthly telephone bill. West Hollywood also donated a telephone answering machine.

"We feel very strongly that the program has good benefits to the residents of the city," said Jack Bollen, West Hollywood's public safety coordinator. "It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the criminal justice system. Unless there is someone to help the witnesses walk through the maze of the courts, they often don't show up."

Advisory Group

An advisory group has been established and includes Judith O. Stein, presiding judge at Beverly Hills Municipal Court, and representatives of the district attorney's office, the West Hollywood sheriff's station, the Beverly Hills Police Department, the Beverly Hills City Council and West Hollywood city staff.

"We're hoping (the program) will navigate witnesses through their required appearances and hopefully alleviate a lot of the insecurities that result from a lack of information," said Elden Fox, who heads the district attorney's office in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hills Councilman Robert K. Tanenbaum, a former New York City prosecutor, said the program is "critical" for witnesses and victims of crimes. "These volunteers are doing a major public service by helping these people," he said.

The program, which was first started by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office 11 years ago, has branch offices with paid staff at 13 courthouses, including Santa Monica. It also operates out of 12 police and sheriff's stations throughout the county. The Los Angeles city attorney's office runs a similar program at satellite City Hall branches and police stations.

At the Beverly Hills Municipal Courthouse, where the county is providing office space for the Law Guild, the program is staffed entirely by volunteers.

Noreen Barry, the program's chairwoman, said 20 volunteers underwent seven weeks of training to learn the basic aspects of criminal justice and crisis intervention.

Sheriff Sherman Block addressed the volunteers last week and told them that they are now part of the criminal justice system.

"It is you who must work to create an atmosphere of order and understanding for both victims and witnesses out of the often confusing and complex entity we call the justice system," Block told them. "Like law enforcement officers, you have chosen to subject yourself to the full range of human emotions and problems--from the 5-year-old child molested by her grandfather to the elderly widow who has lost her life savings to some con artist."

Barry inaugurated the Beverly Hills operation last week by assisting a rape victim during a preliminary hearing.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Myra Radel observed the court proceeding and said Barry's emotional support helped the rape victim provide concise testimony in court.

"It was impressive to see what (Barry) did," Radel said. "The victim was giving a factual account with the emotion left to a minimum."

Sheriff's Detective Pam Sivelle, the investigator in the rape case, said Barry waited with the victim in the courthouse hallway during a particularly difficult period of the trial.

"Noreen has been very good," Sivelle said.

Barry said the experience was gratifying for her.

"I felt drained afterwards," Barry said. "But she (victim) made me feel that my caring was worthwhile, that I was appreciated."

For more information about the Beverly Hills program, call (213) 858-6900.

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