Theriot held multiple jobs as victims assistance coordinator
Published 2:54 pm Thursday, December 31, 2015
Wednesday, Brenda Theriot closed the door to her office on the third floor of the Warren County Courthouse for the last time.
For the past eight years, Theriot, who is retiring, had been a teacher, counselor and advocate as District Attorney Ricky Smith’s victims assistance coordinator. In that time, it was her responsibility to help victims and their families understand the criminal justice system and keep them updated on the progress of their cases as they move through the system.
“You have to have empathy for the families here, because so many of them go through so much and the process is so long,” she said.
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“It does take a long time. I keep in contact with the victims, and they’ll call and ask what is the status of the case — when will it be presented to the grand jury; so it’s just a long process. It’s not an overnight thing.”
Theriot said many people are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system because they never deal with it.
“Most of the people I speak to don’t understand what a grand jury is, what an arraignment is, don’t understand how a trial date is set. It’s a learning process for the victim,” she said.
“I explain the process to them so they are able to follow along. There are some things that don’t happen quickly, and it takes a while to get the whole case together. We can’t go forward with anything until we get the case from law enforcement, and that’s when we go forward to go to the grand jury.”
A native of Gueydan, La., Theriot came to Vicksburg with her husband, who had a job at the then-Waterways Experiment Station.
After working as an attendance clerk and later a secretary at Vicksburg High School, she was hired as a legal secretary by Smith and his partner, Campbell in 2003, when they were in private practice.
When Smith was elected district attorney in 2007, he brought Theriot along as his victims assistance coordinator. She said her experience as a school secretary helped qualify her for the position.
“I think he knew being a secretary for the school district, you’re the mamma to so many kids,” she said. “Sometimes they just need somebody to talk to and that’s what the secretaries were there for, we helped them out with some of their problems and call their parents for them.
“You work with the victim’s family members or the victim for a long time,” she said.
Theriot accompanied the victims and their families to court and sat with them, explaining what was going on.
“I try to let them know things are going to happen before they happen,” she said. “During the trial, the family hears things about their family member they don’t want to hear. So I have to remind them the have to stay calm and after a verdict is read, they have to sit there and not say a thing. Be calm, especially when you get a not guilty verdict.”
She added victims and their families must be reminded a trail jury only hears what happens in the courtroom and that’s all the evidence they can hear.
“You have to remind them we are following the law on what can be presented in the courtroom and what can’t, and that’s very hard for family members to understand,” she said.
If a defendant pleads guilty, she said, family members or the victims themselves can attend the sentencing, and the judge will normally let one of the family members or the victim speak to the court about how the crime affected them.
She said she always tried to learn what the person planned to say to prevent a disruption in the courtroom.
“I also have to remind them they’re talking to the court and not necessarily to get back at the defendant,” she said.
Theriot said the cases that have affected her the most are crimes against children, “especially the sexual crimes against children. The average person doesn’t believe it really happens, and we see it a lot here, and it’s hard to get it across to the people what happens.
“I didn’t want to believe it, either. I would have never believed the things we see here. If I weren’t working, I’d be insulated like everybody else.”
She said the staff in Smith’s office work with the children to help them get ready to testify in a trial.
“When I sit on the stand, I get nervous, and I’m not on trial. And these kids, five years old, 10 years old, have to get in front of 12 people they don’t even know, and explain to them what happened to them,” she said. “It would be hard for me to do, much less a child. You have to get the children prepared to do that, and to let them know it’s OK to talk about it and tell what happened.
“They’re real nervous and they’re sitting in that witness stand. They have to swear to tell the truth, and the judge always goes over that with them, that they know what the truth is, what’s the truth and what’s a lie. We have to make sure the child knows what they’re doing and what’s happening.”
Part of that process, she said, involved getting the children used to the staff.
One practice she had, she said, involves taking the child around the courthouse and introducing them to the bailiffs and tell them the bailiffs are there to protect them so nothing will happen to them in the courthouse.
“You’re just getting the children’s trust in you, and the assistant district attorneys have to do the same thing because they’re the ones who have to stand at that podium and ask that child questions,” she said.
“And we also have to prepare them for the defense attorney, because the defense attorney is going to come up and knock holes in their story, so they have to be strong enough to be able to testify to the 12 people, but also be able to answer that other stranger who is asking questions, and they always are tough questions.”
She said similar practice is done with victims.
“We meet with them, victims, and go over what their statement was to the police or sheriff’s office, see what they actually said. These trials — if something happened in 2013, it will go to trial in 2015. It’s rough, but the adults are not used to being in the criminal justice system and having to testify, most of them.”
Theriot said she and her husband will move back to Gueydan to be with family. She said she’ll miss the people at the courthouse, adding, “This is a good environment, and the people in this courthouse are family. But my family and children are in Louisiana, and I think they’re ready for me to babysit.”