UT community members to form part of new Sexual Assault Community Advisory Board

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Amna Ijaz/The Daily Texan

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Judith Matehuala, News Reporter

José Garza, a Travis County District Attorney, announced the formation of a Sexual Assault Community Advisory Board on March 8 as a measure to help the office build a system that works for survivors to achieve justice.

The advisory board is composed of survivors who have dealt with the criminal justice system in Travis County, as well as community advocates and experts who will advise the office on how to best support survivors in criminal proceedings, according to a press release.

“Sexual assault cases were not very aggressively pursued under prior DAs in Travis County,” said Jeana Lungwitz, a clinical professor at the School of Law and director of its Domestic Violence Clinic. ”Mostly what we’re hoping to do is guide the policies so that everybody gets justice.”

Lungwitz said she is helping the DA’s office by guiding Garza’s policies on investigations and prosecution of sexual assault cases. Lungwitz co-founded and teaches at the Domestic Violence Clinic at UT, where law students represent survivors of domestic violence in civil and parole cases in Travis County under the supervision of licensed attorneys.

Board members include plaintiffs from a class action lawsuit settlement in which 15 sexual assault survivors argued that their cases were mishandled by the Austin Police Department and the previous District Attorney’s office.

Erin Martinson, director of the special victims unit within the DA’s office, said the most important part of this new advisory board is survivors having a voice in the system.

“I don’t think that it’s enough for us to just decide what our office thinks is best for survivors. It’s really important that survivors be able to share their experiences with us to help guide us,” said Martinson, a former adjunct professor at the School of Law.

Members of the board also include UT alum Amanda Lewis, statewide community organizer for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, and Deepika Modali, sexual assault program manager and intake coordinator at Asian Family Support Services of Austin.

“I don’t know when I served on a board that has been so diverse with people who come to the table from all different perspectives,” Lungwitz said.

Martinson, who originally ran for DA in 2019 against Garza, said she wanted to create a community advisory board as one of her platform pieces.

“When I lost the primary and jumped on board with (Garza), he was very much in support of that idea. It’s an idea that we developed together and worked on,” Martinson said. “That was really important to us, making sure people who are most impacted by the system have a voice at our table.”

Martinson said she meets with the advisory board every few weeks along with Garza, first assistant DA Trudy Strassburger and Neva Fernandez, director of the division of victim services.

“I hope that the community, the plaintiffs (and) survivors, felt our commitment to honoring them,” Martinson said. ”I’m excited that everybody feels free and able to move forward and do what’s right. I see really good things on the horizon.”