In her first six months, District Attorney Suzanne Valdez wasted no time creating an office that adheres to her vision of a fair and equitable administration of justice for victims and defendants.
“I’m proud of our work to create a victim-focused approach while proceeding with compassion and empathy for all people involved in our cases,” Valdez said. “By pursuing alternatives to incarceration where appropriate, we can reduce our criminal justice footprint.”
Here’s a look at some of the work since Valdez took office:
Special Victims Unit
As part of the victim-focused approach, the District Attorney’s Office formed a Special Victims Unit to focus on crimes against intimate partners or with child victims.
Attorneys and victim/witness coordinators in the SVU take a trauma-informed approach in their work, which requires a lot of trust-building.
“Our work involves a lot of listening and gathering of facts in a way that doesn’t indicate judgment or blame,” said Senior Assistant District Attorney Emily Hartz, who handles sex crimes. “We have to listen to what the survivors want. They are the expert of their own lives.”
Training in trauma responses is vital because symptoms of trauma can include the survivor recanting or trying to keep the perpetrator from getting into trouble. Often, the survivor will need more time to think about how they want to proceed in the case.
So far the SVU has had one jury trial, which resulted in a conviction on a sexual assault.
Assistant District Attorney Samantha Wagner is also part of the SVU and handles domestic violence cases.
The Lawrence Police Department also formed an SVU recently and the two units work closely.
Alternatives to incarceration
The DA’s Office takes a holistic approach to everyone who comes through the criminal justice systems, considering each case individually to ensure that, when appropriate, defendants get services that meet their situation and needs.
Alternatives offer meaningful access to appropriate services and treatment and the opportunity for a second chance. The DA’s office works with the District Court, Criminal Justice Services, defense attorneys, local law enforcement, DCCCA, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and other community-based treatment providers.
In addition to a robust diversion program, alternatives include Behavioral Health Court and Drug Court. All are structured to promote accountability while reducing recidivism.
In April, Valdez and Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden prosecuted the first jury trial after the COVID-19 pandemic – not in the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center but at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Michael Hormell, 21, of Lawrence was convicted of aggravated robbery and attempted voluntary manslaughter. He later was sentenced to 18 years by District Court Judge Amy Hanley.
Other jury trials since April included:
- Guilty verdict against Erick Ogwangi, 36, of Lawrence on one count of rape
- Guilty verdict against Darren L. Henry, 28 of Topeka on one count of making a criminal threat
As public servants, the District Attorney’s Office works in transparency and seeks accountability from the community. Valdez created a public information officer position with a focus on regular communication with Douglas County.
Upcoming projects include a dashboard to share important data with the community and to examine that data to help inform our practices and a redesigned, user-friendly website.
Additionally, Valdez has taken part in the Justice Matters Assembly, appeared on radio shows and published op-ed columns to discuss programs and actions of the office. Representatives from the DA’s office also will be on hand at the Douglas County Fair. Groups wishing to schedule the district attorney for a speaking engagement can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In July, Valdez joined more than 75 criminal justice leaders across the country in a joint statement condemning anti-trans efforts and pledging to not criminalize gender-affirming healthcare.
Hiring and training
As it typical when an administration turns over, the DA’s Office made many new hires. As part of the hiring process, leadership created standardized training and orientation materials to ensure all attorneys had consistent competencies and understanding of prosecution policies.
Attorneys and office staff participated in training with a facilitator from Rainbow Kids, who focused on interactions with the LGBTQI+ community. Other trainings included programming on crimes against women and covered trauma-informed responses and work with survivors.
While the DA’s office has hit the ground running in the first six months, the work really is just beginning. Ultimately this job is about creating a safe and just community.