“Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice”

This is the headline of an extraordinary article published in last weekend’s New York Times magazine. In it, freelance writer Paul Tullis explores the question of how a restorative approach to criminal justice might work in a case of murder. It is a gripping story centered around the 2010 slaying of Ann Margaret Grosmaire by her boyfriend, Conor McBride, in Tallahassee, Florida. Let me summarize it:

Conor and Ann had dated for several years and were both 19 years old. In the day and a half leading up to the shooting, they had  been quarreling non-stop. The frustration and anger escalated. Finally, Ann gathered her stuff and walked out of the house. Conor followed and she told him she wanted him to die. He returned to the house, loaded his father’s shotgun and placed the barrel under his chin with his finger on the trigger. Ann returned and began pounding on the door. Almost immediately they were hurling their anger at each other once again. She said she wanted to die. He left the room, got the shotgun, returned and found her on her knees. He screamed at her and pulled the trigger as she held up her hands and cried, “No, don’t!”

An hour later, Conor turned himself in at the police station. That night in the hospital, Ann’s father, Andy, stood praying by her bedside. She was on life support and he knew that nothing short of a miracle could bring her back. A practicing Catholic, he was praying and listening “for that first word that may come out” of his daughter’s mouth. He felt her say, “forgive him.” Out loud, he responded, “No way.  It’s impossible.” But as he stood in the room he continued to hear his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

Conor’s parents were away on vacation when the police finally reached them. Conor’s father, Michael, rushed to the hospital even before trying to see his son, who was in jail. When the two fathers faced each other, they embraced. Ann’s father remembered saying, “Thank you for being here, but I might hate you by the end of the week.” But he also knew that the two families were now somehow bound together on a similar jouney.

When Ann was later removed from life support and died, Conor was charged with first-degree murder, which in Florida would result at least in a mandatory life sentence or, possibly, the death penalty. Just before removing her daughter from life support, Ann’s mother, Kate, visited  Conor in jail, carrying a message from Andy: “Tell him that I love him, and I forgive him.” Kate later said, “I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.”

When Ann’s parents met with the district attorney, he told them that he had wide discretion to depart from the state’s mandatory sentences and could recommend as few as five years for Conor. When he said this he did not know that the Grosmaires did not want Conor to spend the rest of his life in prison for killing their daughter. What they wanted was restorative justice.

At this point, Paul Tullis describes the difference between retributive justice — punishing wrongdoers for their crimes — and restorative justice. A lengthy quote is worth including:

Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called “restorative justice” considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate. In this country, restorative justice takes a number of forms, but perhaps the most prominent is restorative-justice diversion. There are not many of these programs — a few exist on the margins of the justice system in communities like Baltimore, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif. — but, according to a University of Pennsylvania study in 2007, they have been effective at reducing recidivism. Typically, a facilitator meets separately with the accused and the victim, and if both are willing to meet face to face without animosity and the offender is deemed willing and able to complete restitution, then the case shifts out of the adversarial legal system and into a parallel restorative-justice process. All parties — the offender, victim, facilitator and law enforcement — come together in a forum sometimes called a restorative-community conference. Each person speaks, one at a time and without interruption, about the crime and its effects, and the participants come to a consensus about how to repair the harm done.

Tullis continues:

The methods are mostly applied in less serious crimes, like property offenses in which the wrong can be clearly righted — stolen property returned, vandalized material replaced. The processes are designed to be flexible enough to handle violent crime like assault, but they are rarely used in those situations. And no one I spoke to had ever heard of restorative justice applied for anything as serious as murder.

Julie, Conor’s mother, began researching who might be able to help them pursue a restorative approach to justice. They found Sujatha Baliga, a former public defender, who was now the director of a restorative justice project in Oakland, California. When she heard it was a murder case, she tried to explain to Julie that restorative justice had never been tried in a murder case and that she only worked with clients on restorative justice for crimes like burglaries and robberies. “No gun charges, no homicides. No rape,” she explained. When Julie told her that the victim’s family was on board, Baliga was astonished. Within minutes she was talking to Ann’s mother. Baliga finally relented — “I just couldn’t keep saying no.”

Eventually, everyone necessary to the process, including the prosecutor, agreed to participate in a restorative-justice community conference. It was held in a small room at the jail where Conor was incarcerated. Baliga laid out the rules:

Campbell would read the charges and summarize the police and sheriff’s reports; next the Grosmaires would speak; then Conor; then the McBrides; and finally Foley [a Catholic priest], representing the community. No one was to interrupt. Baliga showed a picture of Ann, sticking out her tongue as she looks at the camera. If her parents heard anything Ann wouldn’t like, they would hold up the picture to silence the offending party. Everyone seemed to feel the weight of what was happening. “You could feel her there,” Conor told me.

Tullis describes in agonizing detail what the Grosmaires said about Ann as they tried to represent the kind of person she was and how her death had impacted them. Tullis also relates in horrifying detail Conor’s description of what led up to the moment he killed Ann. He describes the impact of Conor’s words on Ann’s parents. And, finally, Tullis reports what Conor’s father said about his deep sorrow that he owned the gun that Conor used to kill Ann.

When Baliga turns to the Grosmaires and asks what they would like to see in the way of restitution, Ann’s mother, Kate, looks at Conor and replies that he will need “to do the good works of two people because Ann is not here to do hers.” When asked by Baliga what punishment they believed Conor should receive, Kate replies that he should receive at least five years in prison but not more than 15. Ann’s father, Andy, says 10 to 15 years. Conor’s parents concur. Conor himself says that he does not think he should have a say.

The prosecutor declined to state his opinion, saying he wanted to take it under consideration. The Grosmaires were disappointed. They had hoped that a consensus decision about Conor’s sentence might emerge from the conference. Three weeks later the prosecutor offered Conor a 20-year sentence plus 10 years of probation or a 25-year sentence. Conor chose the former.

Months later, Tullis met with the Grosmaires:

The Grosmaires said they didn’t forgive Conor for his sake but for their own. “Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor,” Kate said. “Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don’t have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

Continuing, Tullis writes:

Still, their forgiveness affected Conor, too, and not only in the obvious way of reducing his sentence. “With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness,” he told me, “I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge — of feeling abandoned and hated — and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands. I spoke to Conor for six hours over three days, in a prison administrator’s office at the Liberty Correctional Institution near Tallahassee. At one point he sat with his hands and fingers open in front of him, as if he were holding something. Eyes cast downward, he said, “There are moments when you realize: I am in prison. I am in prison because I killed someone. I am in prison because I killed the girl I loved.”

Anyone wishing to read Tullis’ fine article in full can find it here.

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