In matters of crime and punishment, there is no shortage of regret and sorrow on the part of both victim and offender.
Why don’t more of us understand this? It could be because the few news stories that report on criminal trials and sentencing focus only on an anguished victim or two, whose emotions are still raw from the incident — and we frequently don’t ever hear from them again unless the convicted offender is nearing execution, in which case the wounds are reopened again as the search for an ever-elusive sense of closure continues.
And for the convicted criminal? We may read or hear of remarks they make at sentencing hearings — remarks that are frequently pushed aside by a judge as being insincere or not contrite enough before imposing a sentence. And that’s the end of that, unless execution is nearing, and we hear that the convict has maybe found some kind of peace, unless we suspect he’s putting us all on.
At a Nov. 6 conference on restorative justice co-sponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty at The Catholic University of America, even the third-person recounting of some crime victims’ stories, told by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, were heart-rending.
Take the case of the police officer’s wife who told her husband, before he left to report for the night shift, to stay safe. He turned around and told her, “God and I are like that,” showing her his crossed fingers. She heard sirens wailing in the distance at two in the morning, said a quick prayer, and went back to sleep. An hour later, she hear a knock on the door. She knew what it meant — the police had come to tell her that her husband had been grievously hurt on duty — but didn’t want to acknowledge it, pulling the covers over her head in hopes it had been part of a dream. It wasn’t.
She went to the hospital and saw her husband in the emergency room. “His heart was literally in somebody’s hands,” she had said, and even though the medical team was still working on him, “I knew he was dead.” She walked behind him, made the sign of the cross on the top of his head, and walked away. Still inside the hospital, she heard a squeaking sound. At first she couldn’t identify it. But then she discovered what was causing it; her husband’s blood was on the soles of her sneakers. When she walks into a gym on a rainy day, even today, the sound brings back the flood of memories of her loss.
This woman had a hard time getting through the Our Father afterward, because of the line “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “If you want me to do this,” Geske said the woman told God, “you’d better show me how.” It eventually led her seek restorative justice with the man who shot her husband.
Then there was case of the woman who was brutally raped and murdered in Texas. The woman left behind a young daughter. Seventeen years after the incident, the daughter, now fully grown, decided to explore restorative justice, and asked her grandmother to come along. She also asked her uncle, but it was too painful for him to relive. She asked him if he had any questions. He did: “I fixed her car before she left. I wondered if it had broken down, and that’s the reason she got abducted.” Seventeen years later, the possibility that he was somehow culpable in his sister’s murder still haunted him. The answer, according to the one criminal who agreed to go through the restorative justice process, was no, they had met at a gas station and struck up a conversation, and the crime unspooled from there.
But the dead woman’s mother had a question of her own: “What were her last words?” The criminal replied: “I will never forget her last words.” Even though she had already been sexually assaulted and her face badly battered, he reported that she told her attackers, “I forgive you and God will forgive you.” Both the victim’s mother and daughter collapsed in each other’s arms upon hearing that, Geske said, as they knew she had been at peace as death was imminent.
Geske also told the story of a crime victim who was raped at gunpoint. “The gun was worse than the rape,” the woman had said, as she felt that, at any second with her attacker’s gun pointed at her head, she felt she could have died. “Whenever she sees a story about a woman (found) at the side of a road, she says she knows what she was thinking in her last thought,” Geske said. “It was (about) her family, that she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye.”
Another case dealt with a young fundamentalist Christian farm family who were at their home when a couple of teenagers with a can of mace and nothing else better to do decided to mace someone. They saw the farmer’s barn, which said in big letters, “Jesus Loves You.” “Let’s get those Christ-lovers,” one of the teens said; use of the term made this a hate crime. They rang the doorbell. The couple answered. The boy with the can sprayed mace in the farmer’s face.
There was shock and confusion amid a tangle of other emotions from the farmer and his wife. There was also eventually an arrest. The farmer agreed to restorative justice proceedings. “This was such a good experience,” he said afterward, “I wish I had been maced earlier!”
But it’s not just the victims, or the next of kin, who have the potential for healing under restorative justice. The criminal can benefit, too. The victim-offender conferences give offenders a chance to describe the remorse they now can verbalize long after their conviction.
“April 25,” mused one man on a video that was shot while in he was in prison for killing a child. “That’s the day my life changed forever 12 years ago. Not only me, but my victim’s family, my family.”
While in jail, said a second man, “I started thinking less and less about me as a victim, and eventually about the person I hurt as a victim.”
Another man acknowledged the depth of his crime. “Their mom is dead,” he said. “But there are plenty of other victims. I see other victims of the crime I committed,” adding how he’d look at a picture of his grandchildren on a bulletin board.
He talked about a prison visit made by his daughter and her young son. As the two got up to leave, the grandson asked his imprisoned grandfather, “You’re not coming, too?” “And here I am, this tough, this don’t-touch-me kind of man, looking like, ‘Help,'” he said, his voice beginning to quaver. His daughter said she’d explain it all to her son as they drove home.
In the video, there was a brief image of this man — who was definitely older than the other inmates — prior to him speaking on camera. I thought he might have been someone on the restorative justice counseling team. And I was going to mention this to the father of a girl who’s gone to my daughter’s school for the past six years that I’d seen a guy in a video who looked remarkably like him save for a difference in hair style. But then it was clear the man on camera was a prisoner, as he talked about the impact of just one act.
Geske noted how crime victims “have a right to be angry,” and that reconciliation between victim and offender can be neither assumed nor expected, much less instant.
At one family conference, a rapist told his victim, “You need not forgive me for what I did. But should you forgive me, you don’t have to tell me. Just go to the top of a mountain and watch a sunrise for the two of us.”
But there was one instance where the mother of a girl killed by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run accident came to a conference loaded for bear, armed with a video of moments in her daughter’s life. As the video was playing, the incarcerated offender started crying. The woman reached into her purse and got out some tissues and pushed them across the table. “To me, that’s a sign of forgiveness,” Geske said. At the end of the session, Geske added, the mother hugged the man and told him, “You just saved my life today.”