As the state’s second-ever Victim Advocate, Michelle Cruz was outspoken and unafraid to take on those in power. That made her just like her predecessor, Jim Papillo.
Now the two have something else in common. Like Papillo, Cruz is leaving office after well-publicized policy disagreements with a governor. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last week that a prosecutor from Chicago, Garvin Ambrose, will be the new state Victim Advocate, replacing Cruz, a former Massachusetts prosecutor initially appointed by then-Republican Gov. Jodi Rell in 2007.
"It’s pretty clear the position calls for you to be part of the criminal justice system and work with all of the departments and agencies but also to police them," said Papillo, who is now has a private legal practice in West Hartford. "And when you speak out against policies that are adverse to crime victims, you’re going to get very powerful people in the state angry at you."
Cruz explained why she may have upset people.
"I am essentially a whistleblower," she said. "One of the challenges of the office was that on a Monday, you could be testifying on behalf of a law that will help prosecutors and on Wednesday, you could be launching an investigation against the prosecutors’ office…the whole reason I went to law school was to work helping victims. I definitely wanted to continue what I was doing."
Ambrose, who is currently working as an executive assistant state’s attorney and legislative liaison in Cook County, stood out because of his public outreach work, the governor’s office said.
"Garvin comes to us with a notable background, working on behalf of victims and advocating for the policy changes that are necessary to preserve their rights and serve their needs," Malloy said in a prepared statement. Ambrose’s appointment was based on the unanimous recommendation by the Victim Advocate Advisory Committee. "I look forward to working with Garvin in our efforts to protect the interests of victims," Malloy said.
Ambrose declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he wanted to wait until he was confirmed by the legislature.
The decision to choose a new Victim Advocate was hardly a surprise, especially for Cruz.
Last year, she made headlines when she publicly criticized a measure Malloy’s administration and the legislature adopted to give inmates time off of their sentences for fulfilling certain goals, such as taking classes or completing rehab programs. Cruz said hundreds of crime victims across the state had expressed concerns about the early release of 7,600 inmates.
One of those inmates, Frankie Resto, killed a store clerk in Meriden after he was released. Afterward, Cruz went on the offensive, revealing that Resto would have still been in prison if not for the new program. "There was a moment where I thought, ‘I have this information and this is about victims’ rights,’" Cruz said. "I was directly addressing a policy decision made by the administration that directly impacted victims."
Cruz was outwardly critical of other agencies as well, including the Office of Chief State’s Attorney. She complained about a practice in some towns in which domestic violence victims were arrested and charged following altercations, along with the alleged attacker.
"She had a certain style and it’s important that someone [in the position] is able to call attention to certain issues," Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. "There are a variety of ways that someone can do that, some of that can be done constructively."
He stopped short of criticizing Cruz for the outspoken nature of her advocacy. "How effective that was, time will tell," he said. "I’m not making a judgment at all."
State Victim Advocates serve four-year terms. Cruz finished her four years last April, but stayed on because Malloy had not nominated anyone new to the post.
As it turns out, Malloy’s criminal justice advisor, Michael Lawlor, was also the chairman of the advisory committee that interviewed applicants back when Cruz was hired. Lawlor said Cruz was one of 53 candidates. "It was not an easy decision; we had a lot of talented people," Lawlor said.
Lawlor said it’s important for the Victim Advocate to work well with people from other agencies. He addressed critics who say Cruz is being replaced because she spoke out against a policy favored by the governor. "People say a lot of things," Lawlor said. "It’s a four-year term. The governor gets to pick from the list the committee sends to him. That’s the way it works."
Some Republican lawmakers went to bat for Cruz back in October, just after she attacked the early release program and just after the Malloy administration began to formally seek candidates for the position.
"As soon as Ms. Cruz spoke up, the group in charge of posting for that particular job decided to post the job," said John Kissell, R-Enfield. "Whether intended or not, it gives the appearance that if you criticize the administration, you’re in danger of losing your job."
An online petition, signed by more than 100 people, asked that Cruz be reappointed. "I believe Michelle Cruz has done the right thing to speak up to protect all citizens of Connecticut and should not be fired for doing so," wrote Darlene Capson, a South Windsor resident and a family member of a crime victim.
First Of Its Kind
The postion of state Victim Advocate was created in 1998, when Gov. John G. Rowland was governor. It’s not to be confused with the victim advocates who are employed by the Judicial Branch and provide services at courthouses across the state.
The statewide office was the first of its kind in the nation. According to the statute creating it, the goal was to "advance victims’ rights and promote fair and just treatment of victims throughout the criminal justice system."
Today, the office has an annual budget of $315,235 and four-person staff that includes investigators and lawyers. It’s responsible for recommending improvements to the criminal justice system and for making appearances in court on behalf of victims, when needed.
Starting with a brand new agency, Papillo first set out to get the law changed so crime victims were aware of their rights. The legislation required judges to publicly inform victims about their rights in court — including the right to address the court before sentencing. "That law is still followed today," he said.
He worked on other legislation that allowed victims of some crimes to be compensated for their losses, through a special state fund.
In 2006, then-Lt. Gov. Kevin B. Sullivan called on Papillo to step down. Sullivan said Papillo’s opposition to a bill that would require rape victims to be given emergency contraception violated his oath to protect victims’ rights. Papillo, who is a psychologist as well as an ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, adamantly opposed the "Plan-B emergency pill" for all rape victims.
Rell got involved as well, directing her legal counsel to "express her displeasure over the inappropriate nature" of Papillo’s remarks.
At the time, Papillo’s second four-year term was coming to an end, and he decided not to pursue a third term. Like Cruz, Papillo said, he learned the position is a "lightning rod for getting important people angry with you."
During her time in office, Cruz tried to increase awareness of domestic violence, and spoke out against police policies that called for the arrest of domestic violence victims along with alleged attackers who violated restraining orders. "That was a violation of those victims’ rights," Cruz said.
Her office also worked with the Department of Administrative Services to address workplace violence issues; it also created a database that linked missing persons cases with unsolved murders. Most recently, Cruz was working to create a memorial for families of homicide victims.
Cruz also had a high profile during the Petit murder trials. In 2011, she opposed an attempt to bar William Petit from attending the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of two men eventually convicted of the Cheshire triple murders. Defense attorneys had sought to keep Petit from the courtroom out of concern that his testimony might be affected if he listened to other witnesses.
Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue sided with Cruz’s argument that Petit should be allowed in the courtroom under the state’s victim’s rights law.
After leaving the office, Cruz said she will likely hang out a shingle in either Massachusetts or Connecticut and handle civil cases.
Any advice for the next Victim Advocate?
Said Cruz: "Sometimes you have to choose between doing your job and keeping your job."
"I send Mr. Ambrose all the best of luck," Papillo said, referring to the governor’s appointee. "I certainly hope he will figure out a way to accomplish the goals of protecting victims of crime, while at the same time not putting his job at risk." •