It was Mary Byron's 21st birthday. She had been through a bad time recently but as she left her place of work in Louisville, Kentucky that day she was thinking only about the fun evening ahead with family and friends. As she sat in the parking lot, waiting for her car to warm up, she was shot seven times in the head and chest at point blank range. Mary's parents were completing preparations for their beautiful daughter's birthday celebration when they learned that she had been murdered.
Mary's killer was no stranger to the family. He and Mary had dated for a while and he seemed like a normal guy. But when Mary tried to break off their relationship, he became enraged. He harassed her and stalked her. Finally, one night, he brutally assaulted and raped her. He was arrested for those crimes and was sent off to jail. After weeks of fear and intimidation, Mary and her family could finally relax. Her tormentor was in jail and she was safe.
Unfortunately and unbeknownst to Mary and the Byron family, her attacker had posted bail had been released from jail. Apparently, the first thing he did upon release was to obtain a gun. Then he headed for Mary's workplace. We can only imagine Mary's shock and fear when the man she believed was safely behind bars suddenly appeared at the side of her car.
The murder of the young, vibrant, well-liked Mary Byron sent shock waves through her community. People asked, how could such a thing happen? How could such a violent criminal have been released on bail without any notice to the victim or her family? Everyone agreed that if Mary Byron had know that her estranged boyfriend was released on bail, she and her family would have been on the alert, and this tragedy might have been avoided.
Mary's parents and other victims of crime began a campaign to make sure the same kind of tragedy did not happen to some other innocent person. Victims spoke out about the fear and the feeling of powerlessness that had come into their lives when their personal safety or the sanctity of their home was violated by a criminal. Many told how they lived with a constant dread that their victimizer would come back into their lives and victimize them again. They told how their only measure of relief came when they were confident that their attacker was locked up. Now the Mary Byron case showed them how misplaced that confidence could be, and now they would continue to live in dread even when their assailant was sent off to jail.
The plight of these victims caught the attention of two young software engineers in Mary's hometown, who were in the business of designing automated information systems. The two, Mike Davis and Yung Nguyen, quickly saw the whole problem of keeping victims informed of the whereabouts of their attackers as an information management problem that could be resolved with the help of computers. Law enforcement and correctional officers could not be expected to manually keep track of the hundreds of defendants they release each day and the thousands of victims who might want to know about those releases. They knew, though, that a computer could do that easily. They even envisioned a computer program that could automatically place a phone call to victims, letting them know when a defendant's custody status changed. The two engineers set to work, and before long the Victim's Information and Notification Everyday program – VINE was born.
VINE is an automated system that tracks criminal defendant's once they enter the corrections system. It has the capability of automatically dialing victims and their family members who have registered with the system to notify them almost immediately if an inmate is transferred, released or has escaped. The system also allows victims or other interested persons to dial in at any time, to confirm that the inmate which they have a concern about is still locked up.
The VINE system was first implemented in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Byron's home town, in 1994. Within two years the program had spread across the entire state of Kentucky. It then began to spread around the country as law enforcement officials and victims' advocates learned of the important measure of peace of mind the program could bring to victims.
Ed Wutzer, a member of the staff at the New York State Sheriffs' Association Institute heard about the VINE program from friends in the New York City Department of Correction. He knew this was a program the Sheriffs of New York would want to adopt for the benefit of all their citizens. With the approval of NYSSAI's Executive Committee, he began the work of bringing VINE to New York's jails. He obtained a grant from the NYS Crime Victim's Board to fund the necessary computer linkages. He worked with the Sheriffs, and their correctional staff and with other county employees to make sure that each county had a computer interface that would be compatible with VINE. The first live linkage to the New York Sheriffs' Victim Hotline – our version of VINE – was made in 1999. Today every county in New York is linked to the system, along with New York City and the New York State Department of Correctional Services. Ed trained members of each Sheriff's staff on how to "populate" and implement the program. He now works tirelessly with victims, victims advocacy groups and other community organizations to get the word out that VINE is available to victims, and others, in New York.
As Ed has traveled around the state he has heard moving stories of how victim's lives have been helped by the availability of the New York Sheriffs Victim Hotline/VINE. One lady who was the victim of a burglary told how she could now return home feeling safe after she first called the New York Sheriffs Victim Hotline/ VINE each day to verify that her offender was locked up. Another elderly gentleman, whose daughter was brutally murdered, told how he feels compelled to call the VINE system every night before going to bed, just to assure himself that the evil person who did that to his daughter is still incarcerated.
"It's really, really helped people," said Wutzer. "What they've been able to do is to blend technology into the criminal justice system in a way that helps crime victims."
The VINE service allows victims to make a toll-free phone call or go online at www.vinelink.com to check an offender's information. Users also can register to be notified by phone or e-mail, and in the coming months by text message, if an offender's custody status changes.
VINE is now a fixture in America's modern corrections systems. Presently, VINE Tracks 2 Million Offenders or 90 percent of the jails and prison population nationwide. During 2009, VINE also fielded over 3.8 million incoming calls from crime victims and other concerned citizens inquiring about an offender’s status and received 1.6 million new registrations. Total calls to and from VINE topped 17 million for the year. Since VINE was created in 1994, the system has delivered more than 102 million notifications.
In the time since VINE's inception, these crime victims have enjoyed security and piece of mind, knowing the VINE system is always vigilant.
While no system is perfect, the Sheriffs of New York believe that the New York Sheriffs Victim Hotline/VINE goes a long way to assure that a tragedy like that which happened to the Byron family in Louisville, Kentucky will not happen in New York.
Debra Puglisi Sharp knows the man who killed her husband, raped her and held her hostage for five days in Delaware should never get out of prison after receiving 10 life sentences. But she said she takes nothing for granted and VINE provides security.
"I don't have complete faith in the judicial system," Puglisi Sharp said. "I need to know exactly where he is."
Denise Vazquez Troutman, director of the Center for Women and Families, said VINE is an important part of safety plans for women who are trying to get away from abusers.
Pat Byron, Mary's mother, said she doesn't call the system regularly since her daughter's murderer was sentenced to life in prison. VINE gives her comfort.
"I can always check up if I want to," she said, "and that's the peace of mind that it gives everybody."