Third-year student helps bridge the language barrier in local legal system

Amalia Garcia-Pretelt worked as translator for Spanish-speaking victims, witnesses

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Amalia Garcia-Pretelt is a third-year College student. 

Courtesy Amalia Garcia-Pretelt

While many students were working various summer jobs and internships, third-year College student Amalia Garcia-Pretelt was in the Albemarle County Courthouse, supporting Spanish-speaking victims and witnesses through complicated legal and emotional times in a country where they may not know the language and even may be scared to ask for help. 

A dual-citizen of both Colombia and the United States, Garcia-Pretelt is passionate about working with Spanish speakers in the criminal justice system, and as a Political Philosophy, Policy and Law major, she plans to go to law school in the future to realize that dream. Although she worked on the victim and witness side this summer, Garcia-Pretelt said her true interests lie in working with defendants. 

“I was born in Colombia, and I moved to the United States when I was about four years old,” Garcia-Pretelt said. “I go back at least twice a year with my family, and I’m really connected to the culture there. I feel, at the same time, very American, but I also feel very Colombian. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to come here and thrive here — [it] makes be want to work with people, who also came here but might not have the same access to the opportunities that I had.”

For her internship, Garcia-Pretelt worked with the Albemarle Victim/Witness Program, operating as a translator for Spanish-speaking victims during criminal cases and helping to update Spanish literature for victims of crime. As part of the Albemarle County Police, the Victim/Witness Program works to assist and protect victims and witnesses in the Albemarle legal system. 

“We strive to ensure that victims and witnesses are treated with dignity, respect, empathy and compassion while they are involved in the criminal justice system,” said Sandra Abbott, assistant director of the Albemarle Victim/Witness Program. “Victims have the right to be heard in all stages of the criminal justice process. Our office is often the voice of the victim. Therefore, communication with the people we assist is very important.”

Abbott worked with Garcia-Pretelt over the summer and spoke very highly of her service.

“Amalia provided us with the invaluable service of being able to communicate with several of our Spanish-speaking clients,” Abbott said. “Her empathetic demeanor and communication skills helped our clients feel more comfortable while engaged in the criminal justice system … We are grateful for her work.”

Garcia-Pretelt has expressed an interest in pursuing criminal defense as a career, as someone who currently interns at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and previously volunteered at the Legal Aid Justice Center in connection with Madison House. 

“A lot of people don’t have access to actual adequate legal resources, especially people who don’t even speak the language of the country they’re in,” Garcia-Pretelt said. “I think that’s something I’m passionate about, providing legal services to people who are typically underserved and don’t have access or are even scared to ask for help in these situations.”

Garcia-Pretelt worked on two major cases over the summer — a sexual battery of a minor and a homicide case. She said watching these cases unfold was very interesting, but the interactions she had with the victims and their families was very impactful and emotional. In particular, the parents of the homicide victim repeatedly expressed confusion and pain because they left their home country, specifically to escape such violence. 

“This family is scared to ask for police protection since they lived in a neighborhood that was mostly undocumented immigrants,” Garcia-Pretelt about the homicide case. “To me that just made me realize that we need to provide more protection for the people that come here because they are just seeking a safer place, and a place where they can really thrive and raise their families. They are just scared to use the resources that we have available to protect them because we have such a heinous policy of deportation.” 

Garcia-Pretelt completed her internship through the University Internship Program, being one of the four University students to receive of a Wallerstein Scholarship this past year, which provided her with $2,500 to pursue her summer internship. 

Established in 1973, the Wallerstein Scholarship was a gift from Morton L. and Ruth C. Wallerstein to the University, with the intent of promoting interest, research and involvement in local Virginia government. 

The Wallerstein Scholarship is competitive, as candidates are evaluated based on records of public service and work history, displayed interest in local government and communities and academic record, requiring a minimum overall GPA of 3.25. 

Garcia-Pretelt said she plans to spend time helping others with diverse backgrounds.

“I think going forward my main goal is just making sure that Charlottesville and the United States in general becomes a place where people of different backgrounds, people of different countries and immigrants know that they are welcomed here,” Garcia-Pretelt said. “They should be able to come here and feel safe.” 

Correction: This article originally misstated that Garcia-Pretelt previously interned at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and currently volunteers at the Legal Aid Justice Center in connection with Madison House. She is currently an intern at the VCRRC and previously volunteered at the Legal Aid Justice Center. 

This article also mistakenly named the the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center as the “Virginia Capital Defense Research Center.” The original misnaming has been removed. 

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