Arthur Turner remembers standing on a Rockville street corner in January 1977, staring at the two cars that had just collided, and thinking, "Don't get involved; it isn't worth the trouble . . ."
But Turner did not follow this instincts that afternoon and agreed to become a witness.
Three trips to the courthouse and countless phone calls later, Turner swore he would never do it again. "I wouldn't testify if I saw the president shot," he said, only half in jest.
Turner's story is not unique, or even unusual. Because of that, many jurisdictions across the country, including four in Maryland, have set up "victim-witness units," which have the sole purpose of seeing that people like Turner have as little trouble as possible in providing critical testimony in court cases.
Victim-witness units in Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City have begun functioning in the last year. A unit in Anne Arundel County is in the planning stages.
The purpose is to prevent a witness from becoming frustrated delays, continuances and other difficulties that arise during the performance of what they regad as their civic duty.
A case coordinator tries to phone victims as soon as possible after the incident to give them a court date. He tries to get back to them in time if there is a continuance or a guilty pleas so they do not have to come to court unnecessarily. He also tries to provide transportation if needed, explain court procedures , provide child care when needed and discuss the case with the victim or witness before during and after the court appearance.
It is people like Turner that the programs are supposed to help.
"When one of our people is assigned to a case there are 26 steps which he is supposed to take to try and make things easier for the people involved," said William Parker, chief of the Prince George's County unit. "We try to let them know that things are going to get better not worse."
There were no victim-witness units when Turner was a witness and things got worse for him quickly.
"The first time I showed up to testify I got there at about 8:30 a.m. and sat around until almost 11," he said. "Then they finally came in to tell me the case got continued."
Three weeks later Turner got a call from the prosecutor just before 4 p.m. He was needed in court the next morning. "My boss wasn't exactly thrilled to find out I wouldn't be in the next day," Turner said. "But the prosecutor told me I'd just be there in the morning so I figured I'd get least half a day in."
He was wrong. This time, again after arriving at 8:30 a.m.. Turner did testify - at 3:30 p.m. "I was drunk on coffee by the time I got on the stand," he said. "By then I really wanted the prosecutor to lose the damn case."
That sort of situation has improved considerably, according to Parker and Susan Matiskella, who oversees the Montgomery County program.
Both Prince George's Montgomery counties have compiled staistics to document the need for the programs and the success each has thus far.
"For the longest time people just worried about rehabilating the defendant," said Matiskella. "This program finally gives victims and witnesses some consideration,
The Montgomery County unit works with district courts while the Prince George's unit works out of the state's attorney's office, while in Montgomery each of four coordinators is assigned to a different district county.
In Montgomery County 6.497 persons have been called or subpoenaed to testify since the program started. Of those 2.187 were excused without coming to court. The county also has an "on-call" system. Of 1,500 witnesses on-call since October, only 150 have had to come to court.
In Prince George's Circuit Court, 806 of the 3.317 victims or witnesses called into court since October have been contacted in advance about a continuance or a plea. Both counties have compiled detailed data on man-hours and costs saved by avoiding unnecessary appearances by both citizens and policemen.
The units are paid for by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) although the money is actually distributed by the Maryland Governor's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.
The commission receives a grant from the LEAA each year and decides how to distribute the money. In 1976 ($180.000) was designated to set up two victim-witness units.
It was not until 1977, however, that Prince George's. Montgomery and Baltimore counties submitted plans for units. When Baltimore City also applied for a unit, more funds were allocated, and in the first year the four units received $327.676. Next years budget calls for about $360.000, according to Harvey Byrd, the commission's chief of adult programs.