THE WEIGHT OF VICTIMIZATION & FINDING EMPOWERMENT THROUGH VINE
My name is Chief Justice (Retired) Richard Barajas. I am the Executive Director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).
I am a former District Attorney of the 83rd Judicial District of Texas. I was Chief Justice of the Texas Court of Appeals for 25 years. I served my country in the United States Naval Judge Advocate General’s Corps as Lieutenant Commander. I have advised on national policy. I am an author, a nationally recognized lecturer, and a recipient of the Presidential Award for Victim Services. I have a Master’s degree in Education and a Juris Doctorate from Baylor University. I am licensed to practice law in the State of Texas and the District of Columbia.
I’m not telling you this to impress you. I’m not telling you this because I want praise or notoriety or a pat on the back. I’m telling you this because it doesn’t matter. I’m telling you this because there is no credential, no title, no amount of schooling, no award that could have changed the defining moment of my life—or the decades of helplessness that followed.
Take all of that away, and I am still Richard Barajas from El Paso, Texas—brother of Oscar Barajas, a homicide victim.
I remember so well that January morning in 1987. It was 5:00 am when I got “the call.” The kind of call that you dread because you know that it’s not a social call. My older brother had been killed during an attempted robbery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was shot after coming to the aid of a hostage. In that moment, I became an indirect victim of homicide. Within hours, my devastated family converged at my mother’s house to grieve this sudden, senseless loss.
Fast forward through the process: there was a trial, and then a conviction. The case was closed, two murderers imprisoned. My family and I had no choice but to pick up the pieces and move on.
My brother’s murder had such a profound impact on me that I sought public service—first as District Attorney, and later as a member of the Texas appellate judiciary. That early morning phone call in 1987 is what started me on the path that led to where I am today: leading one of the nation’s most recognized victim assistance organizations. But, at the end of the day, I was still a just helpless victim of crime.
Like so many people that share my story, for 25 years there wasn’t a day that passed where I didn’t wonder about the perpetrators of my brother’s murder.
Are they still in prison?
Where are they?
How will I know?
And then one day, several years ago, I came across Appriss. The founders of this ground-breaking company had developed an automated victim notification service called VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday). Through VINE, victims and concerned citizens are able to register to receive offender custody status updates—anonymously and at no cost.
Simply, VINE changed my life.
You see, in 1987, there was no such service. You could try your luck and call the prison system or county jail, but nothing was owed to you. Accuracy was questionable. Accountability was limited. We were on our own, and we felt it.
After discovering VINE, it actually took me some time to find the nerve to search for the two individuals who killed Oscar. I think I was scared of what I would find. What happens if I can’t find them in VINE? How would I react? What would I tell my family? But, as they say, “knowledge is power.” And once I gathered the courage to pull up VINE on my laptop, fill in the search criteria, and click “submit,” I was able to receive confirmation, for the very first time, that my brother’s murderers were still in prison. In that moment, the weight of 25 years spent wondering, worrying… it was gone. In an instant, VINE turned my feelings of helplessness into feelings of empowerment. I cannot begin to tell you what that feels like.
Today I am such a fan, such an advocate, such a firm believer in VINE and its ability to track and communicate offenders’ custody status. I tell anyone who works with victims in any way: You need to know about VINE. VINE puts the power back into victims’ hands, allowing them to plan for their safety and the safety of those they love. Without VINE I would still be wondering. Worrying. I would still be feeling so unbearably helpless. Since that day, I have slept securely.
The level of comfort that VINE provides is second-to-none. Now that I know, I can’t imagine how my family and I could have survived and truly healed without this life-saving service.
I am forever grateful.