JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — It may not be intentional, but sexual assault victims can sometimes leave the law enforcement and court process feeling as though they’ve been victimized twice. First by their assailant and then by a system that can seem disjointed, uncaring, and focused on things other than their healing and well-being.

First Judicial District Attorney General Steve Finney doesn’t want that in his district. The four-county area’s top prosecutor has developed a protocol for sexual assault cases he thinks will both improve how victims are served at an emotional level and yield the best possible convictions in court.

“I promised the community we’re going to go after violent crimes and stick to those violent crimes’ charge, not come off,” Finney, who’s barely six months into an eight-year term, told News Channel 11. “I’ve seen a lot of things pled down but the public never told really why, so the public thinks the DA’s office just gives things away.

First Judicial District Attorney General Steve Finney. (WJHL photo)

“Those days are over. If our office does it, it’ll be explained in a release.”

Finney has twin goals: get the stiffest sentences possible for violent crimes like homicide and sexual assault and create a process that leaves victims feeling heard and cared for by the system.

 “In the big picture, which is a huge picture of connecting all the dots, it’s that the victim feels like somebody cares from step one,” Finney said. “That someone is there to assist the victim.” 

Finney’s office works with about a dozen law enforcement agencies across four counties and multiple cities and towns. He quickly developed a protocol after taking office in September, then discussed it in October with the largest agency, the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD).

The reception was positive, as JCPD was early in a process of reviewing how it handles sexual assault cases. That review stemmed in part from community concerns expressed after former prosecutor Kat Dahl’s federal lawsuit, whose claims include that JCPD didn’t adequately pursue multiple sexual assault allegations against a downtown business owner.

Assistant DAs at the fulcrum

Finney’s strategy centers around offering two specialist assistant DAs to work with police on all sexual assault cases. The women, Robin Ray and Abby Wallace have more than 40 years of experience specific to such crimes.

“I was lucky enough to have two people that are just extremely talented in that area,” Finney said.

Finney and the ADA’s worked up the bones of a protocol that he’s offering to every law enforcement agency to use when there’s a sexual assault (he’s developed one for homicides as well). After a three-hour session with Johnson City in late October, they modified elements of the protocol, which Finney said will continue to evolve.

“It’s just taking their experiences and national best practices and combining them,” Finney said.

But having a good product and convincing people to use it are two different things. Finney said he came into a fragmented environment.

“I just saw things that were disjointed over the last 20 years, and there was a huge, in my opinion, separateness is the only word I can think of, between the district attorney’s office, the assistants, and law enforcement. It was like, ‘we’re doing our thing, here it is.’ Some cases would be great, and some would be ‘I wish they would have done this.'”

The “this” developed by Finney won the JCPD over fairly quickly, Captain Eric Dougherty said.

“It just allows us to have a better partnership with the prosecution team from the very beginning when the cases start all the way through up to prosecution, so it’s just great to have their input at the very beginning,” he said.

The partnership requires a lot of dedication from Ray and Wallace, who are on call 24-7.

“We make that call and whether it’s in the afternoon they answer the phone and we start to work on the case then,” Dougherty said.

He said having a consistent partner from the DA’s office, and having that partner be a specialist, is turning out to be a major advantage.

“Each case can be quite different,” Dougherty said. “So we run it by them, they give advice, we work the case and this goes hand in hand up through prosecution.”

Finney said Washington County Sheriff Keith Sexton and one of his top investigators met with him recently and that department is also planning to follow the protocol.

“With that, you’ve got investigators, law enforcement, the patrol guy at the crime tape all seeing you’ve got a vested interest in what’s going on,” Finney said of the collaboration. “You become vested in their case. Part of this is, if they see us doing that then they’ll become vested in the case beyond arrest.

“I don’t believe the case is over by arrest. It’s not over until a conviction. The better it can be done on the front end is less headaches when you get to court.”

Victims’ well-being paramount

Finney and Dougherty both said the trauma of sexual assault makes it highly important for people in the criminal justice system to be sensitive to what victims are going through.

Finney said the entire “ecosystem” including sexual assault nurses, the JCPD’s Family Justice Center, and mental health counselors — all play a major role in how well someone can heal regardless of what happens in court.

“What I’ve seen in all of them is excellent,” Finney said. “We can get them lined up with counseling, and the advocates I’ve seen have been coming to court. We also have victim witness coordinators, so that information is relayed to the victim witness coordinator, she reaches out from our office which is more so on the court system as to how things work.”

That coordinator appears with victims at hearings and keeps them notified of court dates.

Finney said his office is also breaching what was a disjointed process when victims were first examined. Agreements are being finalized between Ballad Health and Branch House.

“That is coming to a point where if it’s not a physical injury, they’re going to be directed to this other room (instead of the emergency room) with the advocate right there, the on-call person comes, does the rape kit, they’re set up with counseling.”

Finney said that change in approach should also help in the courtroom.

“If someone feels like they’re being treated right, knowing that ‘I’ve got all these people vested in me, that care about me, that care about my case,’ then I think they’re more willing to cooperate.”

Cathy Ball, Johnson City’s City Manager, said the well-being of victims is the bottom line.

“That’s why we have the trauma-informed nurses and the social workers that help them,” she said.

“We want justice, but more than anything we want the victim to be okay. The investigators do their work, they now have this protocol that’s a very informed partnership with the DA that hopefully will lead to conviction, but at the end of the day they want to make sure the victim is ok.”