As a felony prosecutor in the city of Louisville for 15 years, Dorislee Gilbert has seen all sides of the criminal justice system. She has fought for justice for victims of crime, domestic abuse, and child abuse by training prosecutors across the state, by trying cases before juries, and by taking appeals to preserve convictions and keep offenders in jail. She has seen firsthand what can happen to victims when they fall through the cracks of a large, complex, and sometimes cold justice system.
Gilbert’s time as a prosecutor taught her something that didn’t fully sink in until she later watched victims represent themselves during hearings for civil domestic violence protective orders against offenders represented attorneys. The adversarial, occasionally hostile, interactions impressed something on Gilbert’s mind: In the justice system, sometimes bullying wins.
“The entire legal system is basically this: It’s an adversarial system, and in some ways, bullying is what gets rewarded in court,” she said. “It’s about shouting the loudest or tricking a witness on cross-examination into saying something incriminating. The system rewards having the most outrageous plea to a jury. So, we take this thing – intimate partner violence – that is at its most basic and fundamental level a type of bullying and we put it in this system that in many ways rewards bullying, arguing, and pushing the buttons of the other side.”
For the last year, as executive director of the Mary Byron Project, Gilbert has been working tirelessly to change that system and ensure the voices of those victims are heard.
The Mary Byron Project’s new direction: legal representation
The Mary Byron Project is a non-profit organization that seeks to enhance justice to end intimate partner violence. It was launched to spur nationwide change after the tragic death of Mary Byron at the hands of a violent abuser in 1993 – a crime that could have been prevented if Mary and her family had known her abuser was out of jail. The next year, VINE, Appriss’ victim notification service, began providing timely notifications to victims about their offenders’ incarceration status. In 2000, Appriss co-founder Mike Davis and Mary’s parents, Pat and John Byron, teamed up to launch the Mary Byron Project, with Marcia Roth serving as its founding executive director.
|Mary Byron Project Executive Director Dorislee Gilbert speaks to Appriss employees at a Lunch & Learn session in February 2020.|
Twenty years later, the Mary Byron Project continues its original mission of ending intimate partner violence by focusing on the legal side of victim advocacy. One of the tragedies in Mary Byron’s story was her belief that the justice system was doing everything it could to protect her from her abuser, Gilbert noted. Mary had done everything she was supposed to do – she reported when her partner assaulted her. He was arrested and put in jail, and Mary’s family was calling regularly to make sure he was still in custody. Yet he was still released without the Byrons’ knowledge, leading to an entirely preventable tragedy.
“She thought this system was going to protect her, and it didn't,” Gilbert said. “Our mission at the Mary Byron Project is to make that system work to protect victims like Mary.”
But one of the primary strategies for the Mary’s Byron Project’s victim advocacy is its Appellate Advocacy Program. This program mobilizes skilled staff members and volunteer attorneys to represent survivors of intimate partner violence throughout the appeal process – either because relief for a victim has been denied or because an offender has filed an appeal. Typically, hiring appellate attorneys is expensive because handling a new case on appeal is technical and complicated. Most survivors of intimate partner violence don’t have the financial resources to pay an appellate attorney, and even if they do, it is challenging to find one who understands intimate partner violence.
The Appellate Advocacy Program covers the costs of legal representation by trained experts in intimate partner violence who can handle the appeal. These experts help either preserve the court’s decision that was made for the protection of the victim or make the courts protect the victim if a different decision was reached initially. Many victims have to represent themselves because appellate attorneys are so expensive, which forces the victim to continue to engage with their perpetrator. Because the Appellate Advocacy Program is offered at no cost to victims, they are protected from having personal contact with their perpetrators.
In its first year with its new legal focus, the Mary Byron Project has trained nearly 100 justice system participants, filed more than 15 briefs and motions in Kentucky's courts, consulted with local attorneys on numerous cases involving intimate partner violence, and accompanied victims in civil and criminal court proceedings.
According to Gilbert, every appeal has the potential to bring safety, justice, and an end to intimate partner violence for an individual survivor. Each appeal also has the potential to shape and change the law as it applies to all cases of intimate partner violence, securing justice for many others.
“We can't guarantee that every time a victim goes court, they're going to win their case,” Gilbert said. “We can’t guarantee a certain result. But we can do everything possible to ensure they are treated fairly. It's very hard to be a victim of any crime, but especially one like domestic violence. We want the court to protect survivors when it should, and we want every contact that they have with the system to be re-affirming instead of re-victimizing.”
Protecting victims, not re-traumatizing them
This new program highlights the ongoing mission of the Mary Byron Project: To protect and affirm victims throughout the legal process without re-traumatizing them – something that happens far too often in the criminal justice system. Gilbert’s extensive experience as a felony prosecutor underscores this unfortunate reality. In her experience, victims are often stereotyped, misunderstood, and re-victimized by a system that “is not their friend.”
|Mary Byron Project staff and supporters the 2019 Mary Byron Games in Louisville, Kentucky.|
“When I have talked to victims, I have sometimes heard of instances in which police officers didn't treat a victim as if they believed her. Or when victims were in court, they were treated as if they didn't exist – that the perpetrator’s rights were the only rights that mattered,” Gilbert said. “The system is not designed to be anybody's friend, and there are good reasons that there is a presumption of innocence. But it would seem that the victims could have more rights – or at least be treated with more dignity by the criminal justice system throughout the process.”
In many ways, Gilbert is ideally suited to guide the Mary Byron Project through its renewed focus. After working for 15 years on the prosecution’s end of the process, she has a unique perspective into the complicated and often messy criminal justice system. She saw a lot firsthand as a prosecutor, but her favorite work was making a difference in the lives of victims – a task she is well equipped to undertake, both professionally and emotionally.
“I’ve had to tell victims that I couldn’t prosecute their case, but then had the opportunity to explain to them why that was and clarify the whole process for them,” she said. “I’ve cried with victims when they’ve gotten bad verdicts and when they’ve gotten good verdicts – which can be a relief but is not necessarily a happy moment. I enjoy having that relationship with victims and hopefully being an instrument of change in their lives.”
Gilbert hopes that the advocacy work of the Mary Byron Project helps victims on an individual level and works to change things for the better on a systemic level.
“I had become very disillusioned with the system as a prosecutor,” she said. “I had gone into the law being all starry-eyed and excited about this being best justice system in the world and I believed in how fair and equitable it was. But those ideals were not met. The idea of the appellate advocacy program of the Mary Byron Project is to have a legal program that seeks to impact individual victim’s cases and to bring about change in the law. The impact of appellate work is not only helping individual victims, but I hope it also works toward changing the system overall.”