In his former life as a prosecutor, one of the high points of James G. Clark’s career was winning the conviction of Edward R. Grant.
That moment came in 2002, nearly 30 years after Concetta “Penney” Serra, a 21-year-old dental assistant, had been found stabbed to death in the Temple Street Parking Garage in New Haven. As far as cold cases go, this one was frozen. It was solved with the help of DNA evidence that was traced to Grant in 1999.
“It wasn’t career-changing, because all victims families have all the pain surrounding the loss of their loved one,” Clark said of the case. “But the difference here was the victims had been carrying that around for such a long time.”
In a new law practice launched last week, Clark will soon begin providing legal representation and advocacy that puts the victim first. But this is no typical law firm business model. Instead, Clark has created a non-profit organization called the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut, which he runs out of his North Haven home.
The center’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost legal services to victims of violent crime. That focus will be on representing victims of adult sexual assault, child physical and sexual abuse, homicide and elder abuse. The practice will also provide legal representation for victims of violence based on their sexual orientation.
“We are actively seeking clients from under-served populations, including those in poverty, the elderly, immigrants and the LGBT community, with sensitivity to the special needs of each group,” Clark said. “Our goal is to fight for victims’ privacy and their constitutional and statutory rights in criminal cases.”
Clark explained that in Connecticut, victims of violent crimes have a list of rights, including the right to be notified of key developments in their cases, and a right to be present and heard at sentencing hearings. They have the right to recover money from special victims’ compensation funds for their losses, including payment for lost wages as a result of a violent crime.
If a loved one has been murdered or killed as a result of negligence, the law allows for families to recover money for burial services, either from the state or through restitution made by the defendant.
“I’ll be focusing on helping people dealing with the impact of violence,” Clark said.
“I’m not a survivor of violence, I’m not the family member of a violent homicide victim, so I’m not going to tell you what they feel,” he said. “Everyone is going to deal with violence in their own individual way. But I do know that they’re all in a painful situation, and I’m hoping that somehow we can do something to help. That’s what I tried to do as a prosecutor, and that’s what I’m trying to do in private practice.”
Locks And Wages
Clark’s new line of work will encompass a wide range of practice areas. There will be elements of employment law, as he tries to win compensation for wages lost as the result of violent crimes. Housing law will be included as well, as Clark said sometimes landlords are reluctant to change locks or add security alarms or cameras after a crime has occurred.
Another focus will touch on education law, representing victims of violence in school. “Schools, in determining how to punish bullies or even accused sexual assailants, frequently ignore the rights and needs of victims, and there is no one who currently works to enforce that,” Clark said. “It’s not uncommon for schools to refuse to take actions to separate victims from their attackers after a disciplinary action, such as a school suspension, has been completed.”
Clark’s new practice will use a sliding fee scale based on the federal poverty guidelines and the client’s ability to pay, with fees ranging from $25 to $250 an hour.
He anticipates a large part of his work will involve preparing crime victims to make statements in court, and working to prevent personal information, such as health records, from being released to the public. He might also handle some personal injury work on behalf of crime victims seeking to recover losses as a result of violent crime.
In creating the center, Clark selected a board of directors, including lawyers Wick R. Chambers and David Galuzzo, and David Rose, an education consultant from Boston. Sostena Romano, a non-profit project consultant and former project director for the Clinton Foundation, is also on the board.
Under the organization’s charter, Clark will accept an annual salary of no more than $50,000. Even though he is the founder of the center, Clark said he will serve at the pleasure of the board. “I can be fired by the board of directors at any time if they choose,” he said. “Just like any employee.”
Interfering With Prosecution?
The new practice has gained the attention of prosecutors and the state-funded victim advocates who work with them.
Clark’s former boss, New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, described Clark as a “very intelligent, experienced prosecutor.” Of the new practice, Dearington said prosecutors are “supportive of anything that improves the service of providing asisstance for a victim.”
But Dearington has some concerns. “I’m not entirely clear on the specific nature of the services he’s offering.”
Specifically, Dearington said he worries that Clark’s representation of victims might get in the way of his own prosecutions.
“My concern is that any victim may be a witness. If that victim/witness gives [Clark] a statement and that statement is inconsistent with what that witness had told [the prosecutor's] office, then that might be exculpatory because the statement may impeach the credibility of that witness.”
Further, Dearington is concerned that lawyer-client privilege may mean that prosecutors won’t be able to use certain statements by crime victims because they were made to Clark.
Garvin Ambrose, the state Victim Advocate, is in charge of providing victim support services in the courts. Ambrose acknowledged that more can be done to connect victims with counseling legal services. “Unfortunately, our office doesn’t touch every victim in the state,” Ambrose said. “As an attorney, [Clark] can operate a business where he sees the need.”
However, without citing specifics, Ambrose said he has concerns that in publicizing his organization, Clark may be promising more than he can deliver.
But Clark has no intention of failing to deliver a first-of-its-kind service in the state. In a recent interview in his home, Clark acknolwedged that he hasn’t represented a client yet. He was waiting for his legal malpractice insurance to kick in before making a client call. “But I have been contacted by several potential clients,” he said.
Clark worked for the State’s Attorney’s Office in New Haven for 27 years, rising to the level of senior assistant state’s attorney and handling 100 felony trials, including 35 murder cases. He left the job in 2010 to work for the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Va., training military lawyers on investigations and prosecutions of sexual assaults in the military. He recently returned to Connecticut, after his government position ended due to budgetary restraints.
The idea for creating something to help unrepresented victims has been with Clark for a long time. While he was studying at Hastings University of the Law in San Francisco in 1979, Clark and another student created a program to help victims of domestic violence.
That program, which is still in existence today, is called the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic. The city-wide project helps domestic violence survivors in San Francisco obtain restraining orders to protect them against their abusers. The services are provided free of charge through pro bono services of local lawyers.
As for his new project, for now Clark is the only lawyer working for the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut. He hopes to expand the practice before too long, with the help of pro bono assistance. “My job, which is different than the prosecutor’s job, will be to put the victim before everyone else,” Clark said.•