Unlocking Victims’ Stories by Protecting their Dignity and Privacy

by Tanya Treadway
Assistant United States Attorney
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Kansas

As a health care fraud prosecutor, I have been repeatedly faced with the challenges of working with patients who were victims. As we all know, many victims, for whatever reason, are often reluctant to cooperate, and are especially reluctant to be witnesses. When the crime is directly related to victims’ health, they are often ashamed and afraid of cooperating, worried that their identities and entire medical histories will be revealed not only to the investigative team, but in a public forum.

Faced with these challenges, we have developed a general protocol that involves (1) redacting all references to their full names and methods of identification in all exhibits and pleadings; (2) obtaining agreements from opposing counsel to redact their documents and refer to victims only by first names at public proceedings; and (3) filing protective orders early in the case. But most importantly, the prosecutors and investigators take the time to personally and individually meet with victims to discuss these issues and assure them that we will do everything to protect their identities, as well as their dignity and privacy.

Some cases require additional measures, such as placing computer screens so that only the jury, parties, and judge can see displayed documents and pictures. This worked very well in an involuntary servitude case we prosecuted, in which the necessary evidence included videotapes of the victims, nude, working on a farm and performing sexual acts at the direction of the defendants. The “public” nature of the trial was not effected because the public could hear the audio of the videos, and witnesses (including victims) described what occurred.

In another case involving psychiatric patients, due to the very sensitive nature of the medical histories, we gave every person an anonymous name, such as Alpha 1 or Tango 3, and the defense team and the court agreed the victims could appear by using those names.

Although taking these extra steps is undoubtedly tedious and time consuming, doing so pays huge benefits in gaining victims’ trust and opening up the stories that are often hiding behind their shame and fear. Fraud cases can be mired in dull documentary detail. Therefore, victims’ stories are key to putting a face to the crime and making the story a more memorable and immediate one for the jury.

We do not claim to be victim-witness specialists, but by using this approach, we have obtained outstanding evidence and gained great insights into the defendants being prosecuted. We have also held a lot of hands, received and returned a lot of hugs, and shared many boxes of tissues with our victims. We may be cynical and tough prosecutors, but when we allow ourselves to embrace the victims by protecting their privacy and dignity, we offer them respect and give them strength to voice their stories. And, when victims have a voice, justice is served.