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Legacy of service

Victim-witness coordinator remembered

By Robert Cloud

For victims, the long wait to secure justice can be nearly as painful as the crime itself.

After the shock of a burglary or the tragedy of a homicide, victims may endure months, even years of delays.

Adding to their anxieties are the legal system’s complex procedures of preliminary hearings, status conferences, discovery and motion hearings.

Although prosecutors and defense counsel try to negotiate a resolution, the case may end in an emotionally charged jury trial, followed by a sentence that the victims or their families find disappointing.

During the ordeal, one person working in the Waupaca County District Attorney’s office spent years putting a human face on the quest for justice.

Mary Lea St. Thomas, who worked as the county’s victim-witness coordinator from 1998 to 2017, died March 11. She was 49 years old, and her last year of life was a struggle with pain that forced her into a wheelchair.

Her legacy of offering comfort to and being an advocate for victims and their families is remembered by her colleagues and clients.

“She put the humanity in the prosecution process,” recalled District Attorney Veronica Isherwood. “The victims knew they didn’t have to go through this alone.”

St. Thomas helped victims navigate the court system and exercise their rights.

Wisconsin law provides that crime victims have right to know if a defendant has been released from custody.

Victims have the right to be informed of the status of the prosecution.

They also have the right to meet with a representative of the district attorney to discuss the case, potential plea agreements and sentencing options.

If they request it, victims must be notified of all court hearings and they have the right to attend those hearings.

They have a right to a speedy disposition of a case and to know which charges have been dropped.

They also have a right to provide the court with a victim impact statement prior to sentencing.

“The victim impact statement lets the judge know how they feel and how the crime impacted them,” Isherwood said. “Mary Lea would meet with the victims and explain how to write a statement. Sometimes, people are too nervous to get up and speak to the judge, so she would read it for them or she would stand next to them when they read it in court.”

Isherwood said St. Thomas always had a box of tissues with her in the courtroom.

“I have seen victims cry on her shoulder,” Isherwood said. “She dealt with sad victims, mad victims, indifferent victims. They all received compassionate service.”

A victim’s experience
Carol Hudziak is among the victims served by St. Thomas.

Hudziak’s 46-year-old daughter, Pam Stearns, of Waupaca, was riding a motor scooter on a country road on Sept. 24, 2007, when she was hit by a car police say was traveling 85 mph.

Gregory R. Hurlbut was charged one year later with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle.

After numerous motion hearings, an inconclusive mental health report and two canceled jury trials, Hurlbut was convicted of homicide by negligent use of a vehicle on March 7, 2011. He was later sentenced to 12 months in jail.

The OWI-homicide charge was dismissed outright.

Hudziak said she spent four years waiting for the case to be resolved.

“Throughout that time, Mary Lea was just a wonderful person,” Hudziak said. “She said things that made us comfortable. She held my hand in court. We talked about every two weeks.”

Hudziak said she was disappointed that the man who killed her daughter was sentenced to only 12 months in jail.

“She was our oldest child and our only daughter,” Hudziak said. “We still hurt over it.”

She has mixed feelings about the case not going to trial.

“If it went to a jury, there would have been pictures that we probably would never have gotten over,” Hudziak said.

After Hurlbut was sentenced, Hudziak and St. Thomas remained in contact. They spoke on the phone and exchanged Christmas and birthday cards.

Hudziak said when staff at the courthouse cleared out St. Thomas’ desk after she died, they found all the cards she sent to the public servant who had become her friend.

St. Thomas was born February 20, 1968, in Green Bay to James and Lorraine St. Thomas.

She attended St. John the Baptist Grade School and graduated from St. Joseph Academy in 1986. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Marian University.

She is survived by two adopted sons, Dante and Austin, her mother and step-father and her brother, Joe.

Statewide commitment
Isherwood noted that St. Thomas worked outside the office in statewide and county organizations that advocate for victims rights.

St. Thomas served on the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team, the Waupaca County Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice, Keeping Kids Alive, a child-death review committee.

“She was always trying to make the process more victim centered and more victim friendly,” Isherwood said.

Christine Nolan is the deputy director of the Office of Crime Victim Services with the state Department of Justice.

“It is difficult to sum up one’s life work and impact when it was dedicated to helping and advocating for crime victims, be it a victim of sexual assault, child abuse or a home invasion,” Nolan told the Waupaca County Post. “Unless you have experienced it first hand and you needed the support and assistance, it is difficult to truly understand the value of the service she provided to countless victims and witnesses over the almost 20 years she worked in the DAs office.”

Nolan said she brought St. Thomas in to share her insights with other victim-witness coordinators around the state.

“She was one of the good ones … a strong vocal advocate for the victims she served; always making sure their voices were heard and needs met,” Nolan wrote in a memo to victim-witness coordinators throughout Wisconsin. “She frequently needed to ‘motivate’ the prosecutors with whom she worked to do the right thing. They respected her for that and even counted on her to push them and challenge them.”

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