Quiet Compassion in the Courtroom
Amid a throng of prying news cameras and pushy reporters, the soft-spoken mother of murder victim Sherri Dally hurries from the courtroom with an unidentified woman leading the way.
The crowd urges a quick comment from Karlyne Guess on the guilty verdict just handed down in the trial of one of her daughter’s two killers. But no one notices the woman at her side, or even asks her name.
Ellie Liston is the face in the background.
As the senior victim advocate in the Ventura County district attorney’s office, Liston has guided hundreds of crime victims and their families through the harsh realities of the criminal justice system.
A former emergency room nurse, Liston’s steely eyed toughness and compassion for wounded souls has carried her through nearly two decades on the job. No one has held more hands or dried more tears or comforted more grieving mothers.
“She has just been my Rock of Gibraltar,” said Guess, who has endured two high-profile trials in the past two years. “She has been my encouragement and my strength through all of this.”
Liston is one of 16 full-time advocates whose primary role is to serve as a liaison between victims, victims’ families and the justice system. Bolstered by 24 volunteers, the assistance program aided 14,648 crime victims last year, up from 11,155 the year before.
Advocates keep track of court dates, provide referrals to support groups, shelters or counselors, and help file restraining orders.
But it is the emotional help--the hand to grasp during a traumatic court hearing or the shoulder to cry on--that can be the most valuable service advocates provide.
“It is caring for someone who has suffered a crisis in their life,” said Liston, a 61-year-old grandmother who compares the advocate role to her earlier career in nursing.
“Your daily work is with people who depend on you to make them feel better,” she said. “And I do that now.”
For 18 years, Liston worked as a nurse at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura after she and her husband, Tom, moved west from New York City in 1960.
Gradually, she rose from a staff nurse to the emergency room, and later became a supervisor. Liston was the hospital’s director of nurses for four years before retiring to spend time at home with her three children.
But that didn’t last long.
“My kids went crazy with me at home,” she said, recalling the number of times she moved the furniture around her house just to keep busy. “They said, ‘Could you go back to work, Mom?’ ”
At that point, Liston read a newspaper article that would alter her career path for the next 18 years.
The district attorney’s office was looking for volunteers in the consumer fraud unit. Liston signed up. Less than a year later, she and two others were hired to launch the victim assistance program.
“I was just so thrilled,” said Liston, who vividly recalls her first case--a rape trial prosecuted by Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.
The victim was a 13-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted, drugged and left for dead. The attacker, thinking she was dead, buried her alive, but she survived.
In her long career as a victim advocate, Liston said the case still stands out as the most difficult.
“I will never forget that child,” Liston said. “That to me was real hard, but only because it was my first case and I had to learn how to use my traits, and I did.”
Over the years, Liston has helped victims of many crimes, ranging from domestic assault to rape and attempted murder. Two years ago she began handling gang-related cases that involve delicate issues of intimidation and fear.
For her, the most trying cases are those involving children and law enforcement personnel, she said. Liston’s nephew, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty, and her son, Matthew, is a Ventura police officer.
“It is difficult for me,” she said of the cases involving slain police officers. But at the same time, she said, “I think that is the one type of case where I can really say not that I sympathize but that I empathize.”
Liston has also handled nearly every local high-profile murder case in the past decade, in part because of her experience as well as her guarded defense of victims’ family members thrust into the media spotlight.
“Whenever a case tends to be really high profile or complex, we turn to Ellie,” said Debbie O’Neill, director of the county’s Victim Services Division. “Ellie is very comfortable about being very assertive about protecting victims from media harassment.”
In the past year, Liston has split time between two of the county’s most-watched murder cases.
She was in the courtroom with family members during the trials of co-defendants Michael Dally and Diana Haun, who were both convicted of conspiring to kill Dally’s wife, Sherri Dally. And Liston also offered assistance to the family of slain Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter J. Aguirre Jr. in the trial of convicted killer Michael Raymond Johnson.
This week, Liston’s role as an advocate will kick into high gear when Guess returns to Ventura County Superior Court to testify today at the penalty phase of her son-in-law Michael Dally’s murder trial.
And Liston will be present Wednesday with crime victims who will be recognized during National Victims’ Rights Week as they grasp hands during a symbolic walk around the County Government Center.
It is a significant day for Liston, who has watched the victim rights movement take hold over the years. She still recalls the days a decade ago when victims were treated with little respect by the justice system, and lawyers and judges resisted the role played by advocates.
“When we walk into the courtroom now, there is respect, there is concern, there is attention,” she said. “It took 10 years to fight hard to get there.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth has worked with Liston on numerous criminal cases over the years, including the Dally case.
“She has probably the most compassion for people of anyone I’ve ever met,” Henke-Dobroth said. “And she has an untiring sense of patience.”
O’Neill, who became director of the assistance program two years ago, has watched Liston work with victims and said her strength is being compassionate while not getting too involved.
“A few weeks back, I heard her say to a victim, ‘I am so sorry this happened to you.’ It’s really a simple statement, but the victim was moved. She said, ‘You know, you are the first person to say that to me,’ ” O’Neill said.
“Ellie has a very strong sense of her boundaries as a victim advocate,” she added. “Sometimes an advocate becomes so closely bonded to a victim, they take on that pain and trauma. And when they do that, it prohibits them from being able to provide the assistance they need to provide. A certain amount of objectivity and distance is important just for survival.”
After nearly 20 years, Liston acknowledges that it may be time to move on. Outside work, she enjoys sewing and spending time with her five grandchildren, ages 4 to 9. Her three children--Tommy, 37, Matthew, 36, and Delia, 31--all live locally.
But she says leaving the job, especially the prosecutors she has grown close to over the years, would be hard.
“How many people have this opportunity to have such a great job where you get to meet and work with a diversity of people?” Liston asked. “It’s wonderful.”