Restorative Justice and Violent Crime - Part 2

In my last post, I shared the first part of Jenny’s story – about her request to meet with the man who had killed her brother, and the journey of preparing for that meeting. Today’s post is about their face to face meeting.

Jenny and Dave met at the prison where Dave was serving his sentence.

Marie Hamilton and another mediator named Marcia Drew, from the Office of the Victim Advocate, facilitated their meeting.

Here is a brief excerpt from the story of their meeting from Grace Goes to Prison, starting at the point where Jenny, Marie Hamilton, Marcia Drew, and Dave went into the meeting room:

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Jenny sat down.

“I have trouble with my hearing. Is it okay if I sit across from you?” Dave asked Jenny. “Unless you’re afraid of having me that close.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Jenny replied quickly. She realized with surprise that it was true. After years of paralyzing fear of the man who had murdered her brother, she felt nothing for this shriveled, beaten-down man.

Dave sat down. “I want to say how sorry. . . .”

Jenny stopped him. “First, before you say anything, I want you to see what you’ve done.”

She laid photos of Kenny, his tombstone, and his freshly covered grave on the table in front of Dave. “This is all I have left. This is what you took away from me.”

Dave started to shake.

Jenny explained the image engraved on Kenny’s tombstone. It was an eighteen-wheeler driving along a ribbon of highway. “He was about to pursue his dream of having his own rig. You put an end to that dream.”

Dave began to sob. “I’m so . . . so sorry.”

“That doesn’t cut it for me,” Jenny replied bluntly. “You should have been sorry a long time ago. You know, at the trial, I hoped you’d get a longer sentence. We were hoping for a first-degree murder conviction. Seems to me you got off easy with the argument that you were drunk and didn’t know what you were doing.”

“I did have a serious drinking problem,” Dave admitted. “I had to detox here in prison without any help.”

“You think I should feel sorry for you?” Jenny asked . . .

*****************

In the hours that followed, Jenny was able to ask questions, to confront Dave with the full impact of what he had done. She was able to express her rage, her fears, her anguish, her confusion – why Kenny? Why our family? She was able to tell Dave about her memories of her brother – and express to him the profound sense of loss she felt when Dave took her brother away.

Dave, too, had profound emotions he wanted to express and things he’d wanted to say to Jenny for many years.

Their face to face meeting took nearly 8 hours. Each of them shared their stories. They cried together. And toward the end of that long day, they even laughed together.

As the day drew to a close, Dave said this to Jenny, “I know there’s nothing I can say that will be enough to make up for what I did … And I know that saying I’m sorry doesn’t even begin to take away the fact that your brother is dead. I’ve had to live with that fact every day for the last twelve years. It’s haunted me every night: how I could have been so messed up to do what I did. I don’t expect you to ever forgive me, but I do want you to know how deeply sorry I am.”

And after 12 long years of pain, 6 months of preparation and 8 hours of mediation, Jenny had one more thing she wanted to say to Dave and she finally felt ready. “I forgive you, Dave. I’ll never forget what you did . . . but I forgive you. I’m hoping to move on with my life now and I hope you can move on with your life too.”

When I interviewed Jenny, I asked her how she had felt after the face to face meeting with Dave was over. She told me, “When I walked out of the prison that afternoon, and heard that huge steel door slamming behind me, it was like a door was closing on a long, terrible chapter of my life. I felt like I was finally free.”

As for Dave, though he remained incarcerated and served out the rest of his sentence after the mediation, being given the chance to express his deep remorse and receiving Jenny’s forgiveness helped to restore Dave’s humanity.

Restorative justice isn’t a panacea and these types of face to face meetings are not appropriate in every situation. Sometimes, the victim or surviving family members aren’t at a place in their journey toward healing where they can even consider taking such a step. Sometimes, the person who committed the crime isn’t willing to be accountable or lacks remorse. Sometimes the person who has been charged, sentenced and incarcerated for the crime is NOT the person who actually committed the crime (i.e., wrongful conviction – more about this in future posts).

And sometimes, for other reasons, it’s simply not possible to bring a victim or surviving family member together with the person who committed the crime.

But when processes like this are made available to victims and surviving family members, tremendous healing can occur – both for the victims and family members, as well as for the person who committed the crime. It’s important to note that, while Jenny and Dave both spoke about forgiveness in their face to face meeting, this is not always the case in these meetings. Each victim’s journey is a very personal one and each victim needs the space and opportunity to do or say whatever they feel ready to do or say in these meetings, without being expected to offer forgiveness.

For the person who committed the violent crime, these types of face to face meetings are NOT a substitute for or alternative to appropriate criminal justice sentencing and sanctions. In Pennsylvania, participation in this program does not change the offender’s sentence, incarceration conditions, or release date in any way.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state with such a program for cases of violent crime. At the national level, the organization Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) advocates for alternatives to the death penalty, including programs like this, and MVFR has assisted victims and surviving family members who want opportunities like this to work with prison administrators and criminal justice administrators to allow for such face to face meetings.

The detailed story of Jenny’s and Dave’s face to face meeting is told in Chapter 14 of Grace Goes to Prison: An Inspiring Story of Hope and Humanity.

And as mentioned in my previous post, the documentary film Beyond Conviction shares the stories of three other cases in Pennsylvania.

Here are some other resources related to restorative justice in cases of violent crime:

  • my friend Therese Bartholomew, whose brother Steve was murdered, recently met with the man who killed her brother. Therese is working on a soon-to-be-released documentary film about her experience titled The Final Gift
  • at the National Conference on Restorative Justice where I spoke in June, one of the breakout sessions was a panel of victims of crime sharing their perspectives on restorative justice. Here’s a great article by Lisa Rea, who facilitated that session, about those victims’ perspectives.

As mentioned in part 1 of this story, I believe that sharing stories like Jenny’s and Dave’s can help to change the national debate about crime and justice, and I intend to continue posting such stories of restorative justice at work. I hope you’ll consider SUBSCRIBING or FOLLOWING my blog using the links to the right. And if you would, please take a minute to share this with others using the LIKE or SEND buttons below. I’ve said it before, but will keep saying it: thanks for reading!

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice grace goes to prison criminal justice

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