LGBTQ crime victims get help to tell their stories
Randall “Soya” McCall had a harrowing story to tell on the witness stand: A man who picked her up for sex on a January night in Detroit suddenly pulled out a gun and shot her in the face.
McCall, a transgender woman, made it through her testimony in Detroit’s 36th District Court with the help of an advocate who works with crime victims from the LGBTQ community.
Julisa Abad, a victim advocate with the Fair Michigan Foundation, counseled McCall before she took the stand during a preliminary hearing for the man, Jason Hogan, accused of shooting her. He is scheduled for trial in May.
“I kept her feeling comfortable and safe so that she would testify,” said Abad, who also is a transgender woman. “I also advised her that at any point in time if anybody asks you anything that is uncomfortable or that you feel was not worded correctly, look at me while you are answering the question so that it feels that we are having a conversation.”
Fair Michigan, based in Plymouth, works with crime victims from the LGBTQ community under a partnership with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.
Abad said the attack on McCall, and crimes against other LGBTQ people, illustrate how transgender people are “easy targets.”
“This case highlights the mortal danger faced by transgender individuals in Michigan,” she said at the time Hogan was charged.
Abad said crime victims from that community often fear going to the police and she hopes her work can help change that.
“It is incredibly encouraging to know that the Fair Michigan Justice Project, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the Detroit Police Department have stated, in no uncertain terms, that violence against the trans community is unacceptable under any circumstances,” she said in January.
The Fair Michigan partnership with the prosecutor’s office, which began last year, is a relatively new addition to a program that has given aid and comfort to Wayne County crime victims for 40 years.
Karen Hall, coordinator of Wayne County’s team of 26 victim advocates, said the program has proven its worth in helping crime victims get justice and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.
“It relieves anxiety,” she said. “Our goal is that we are there for them providing support so that they don’t get revictimized. ... Our goal is to be there providing support so that they get back on the road to recovery.”
With Abad’s support, McCall testified calmly, giving an unflinching account of what happened to her the night of Jan. 13 in the area of Woodward and E. Seven Mile.
“I was just begging ‘Please, no. Please, no,’ ” McCall said during the Feb. 8 hearing. “I saw blood everywhere, and I got scared. I saw the gun in my face.”
Abad said her advice for victims who have to testify is simple: “I tell them (to) ‘look at me when you talk,’ ” she said. “ ‘Stick to your truth.’ ”
Bobbi Dixon, a victim advocate for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, takes a similar approach with clients who will have to face their alleged attacker in court.
“The defendant is going to be there. (I tell them) find something else to look at. Look at the judge,” Dixon said. “Don’t get angry with the defense attorney. Tell your story.”
In all 83 of Michigan’s counties, advocates accompany victims to court, alert them to the dates for legal proceedings and help them apply for financial assistance through state grants allocated for crime victims.
“They are invaluable,” said Paul Walton, an assistant Oakland County prosecutor. “(During court proceedings) they might lean over and explain (to the victim) why a certain question is asked or why something is done in a certain way.
“They help allay concerns, trepidations or fear because (the victim) is through into the unknown. The victims’ advocates do a phenomenal job of helping walk victims through the process.”
Oakland County’s five advocates, assigned to the Crime Victims and Special Crime Victims units in the prosecutor’s office, assist 5,000 victims a year with a budget of $347,000.
Officials in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said a budget amount for the victim advocate program was unavailable.
Wayne County’s advocates each handle about 200 cases a year, and the emotional impact from a difficult case can linger for years afterward for victim and advocate alike.
Mia Edgerson, who has assisted victims in about 1,000 Wayne County cases, said the toughest part of the job is sitting through the victim impact statements at the end of a trial.
“It’s hard to hear someone else’s pain like that,” she said.
Edgerson said one case that haunts her in particular is the 2008 slaying of two boys inside a crack house on Detroit’s west side.
Two people, Sonya O’Neal and Robert Reed, were convicted of shooting the boys execution-style. The pair were looking for money and drugs when they entered the home where Orlando Herron, 13, and Darren Johnson, 11, were visiting an older cousin, who survived the gunfire.
“When you kill someone, you kill a piece of a family ... a piece of a community,” she said. “People are never the same.”
Advocates say that in some ways, the most challenging part of their mission is persuading people who have been physically and emotionally abused that they won’t be harmed again in court.
“Sometimes people come with a distrust of the legal system,” Hall said. Being present as an advocate “makes them know we have their best interest and we come with a level of compassion and lets them know we’re here for them and it’s not fabricated.”