Stanford University law student Natasha Haney entered law school in part out of a desire to seek justice for crime victims. But Haney isn't waiting to graduate. In her second year, she is already assisting the families of murder victims.
Haney has received an "unsung hero" award for her work as a co-leader of Parallel Justice, a student pro bono organization founded in 2012 on the principle that crime victims -- not just criminal defendants -- deserve to be treated with fairness in the criminal justice system.
Haney was one of 12 people honored on April 11 by Santa Clara County's Victim Support Network for helping victims and their families. Her award was given by network partners Mothers Against Murder.
Crime victims' families can receive up to $5,000 through the state victim compensation fund for counseling, funeral and burial expenses and other needs, Haney said. But often the process is so complicated it can take months to navigate the system, even for lawyers. Haney conducts research and helps victims file claims and appeals if they have been rejected, she said.
The effect of murders on families is searing and long lasting, Haney said. Parallel Justice began working with the organization Mothers Against Murder last fall, which referred to them an East Palo Alto case and two cases from San Jose. One year after a murder in early 2013, a family Haney met was still going through tremendous grief, she said. In one case, a mother had to settle for the cremation of her son. She wanted a traditional Catholic burial in keeping with her faith, but she couldn't get the funding in time, Haney said.
Haney said she wants to be a state prosecutor. But her work through Parallel Justice has made her sensitive to the needs of those who are not represented, she said.
"Victims often feel the DA is kind of their lawyer, but the prosecutor is the people's attorney. (Victims) think they are kept out of the loop a lot of the time. They have to keep calling the prosecutor or the victims' advocate to keep them updated. It's frustrating," she said.
"A lot of times people don't think about the crime victims, and it's really uncomfortable for some people to see their grief. As a prosecutor, it's really hard to keep the victims in the loop. This work has made me realize how important it is to take time out of your day so you can listen to victims," she said.
Haney grew up in the Midwest and East Coast, and later lived in Vacaville, Calif. She originally wanted to be a professional flutist and studied at a music conservatory in Australia. Her exposure to audiences and performance comes in handy in courtroom presentations, she said.
She eventually settled on Smith College in western Massachusetts, where she received an undergraduate degree in government and political science and developed the confidence and outspokenness that are useful to a lawyer, she said. She worked at a large New York City law firm as a paralegal, but she realized she didn't want to be a corporate lawyer, she said.
"I've always been fascinated by crime stories and how people put their lives together after an incredibly horrible story. It must be an empowering and satisfying feeling to get someone justice for a crime that has been committed against them," she said.
Haney has participated in the Criminal Prosecution Clinic at the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and is currently participating in an externship at the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office.
She often meets with friends who work in the criminal defense clinic at Stanford, and they have many spirited debates over dinner, she said.
People often ascribe great power to attorneys and law students, she said. Whether it's a crime victim, family member or friend, she said she feels people think she can solve all of their problems. She takes that level of responsibility seriously, she added.
"It's inspiring that people trust you so much, and you have this ability to help them," she said. "My dad was in the Air Force, and so public service is in my blood."
Other honorees included Morag Barrass, a volunteer with the YWCA Silicon Valley Domestic Violence Support Network program; San Jose Police Sgt. Kyle Oki; Prosecutor Angela Bernhard; Silicon Valley FACES attorney Nicole Ford; Asian Americans for Community Involvement's Armina Husic; Santa Clara County Probation Department's Barbara Jacobson and Mary Ryan; Community Solutions' Saozinha Restorick; Assistant U.S. Attorney Amie Rooney; YWCA Silicon Valley Rape Crisis program's Kate Sackett and Los Gatos/Monte Sereno Police Chief Scott Seaman.