Restorative Justice in Murder Cases

The New Orleans District Attorney’s office is implementing restorative justice to resolve murder cases. It’s been used to induce a plea agreement for one murderer, and reduce the sentence of another.

Jeremy Burse was just 15 in 2010 when he and his friend Anthony Davis, 16, tried to rob a security guard. Burse shot at the fleeing security guard and the bullet ricocheted, striking and killing Davis. Burse was sentenced to life without parole, but the U.S. Supreme Court held that life sentences for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional, so the Orleans Parish DA office decided to use a process it termed mediation to review Burse’s sentence.

The mediation involved Burse, by then 21, his attorney, his family, victim Anthony Davis’s mother Gilda Davis, and Assistant DA Laura Rodrigue, who heads the restorative justice unit for the Orleans Parish DA office. Apparently after an emotional half-day meeting, they all agreed to recommend that Burse plead to an amended charge of manslaughter and receive a 25-year sentence for that. The judge agreed.

Gilda Davis said afterwards that Burse had offered a tearful apology during the mediation.

In an earlier case, a process called mediation was used to induce a defendant to plead guilty to manslaughter on the day his murder trial was scheduled to begin. The defendant, Cornell Augustine, was remorseful, and the victim’s family was willing to consider forgiveness over vengeance, so Assistant DA Rodrigue thought this might be a good case for mediation. The defendant and his attorney met with the DA and the victim’s family to discuss a plea deal. The defendant could have faced life in prison if convicted of murder; instead he was sentenced to 30 years on the manslaughter conviction.

The articles on these mediations imply that the DA was herself the mediator between the offender and the victim’s family—but of course the DA is hardly neutral, so it’s not clear to me that this is really mediation. It may be an expanded guilty-plea negotiation, or more like a 3-way negotiation, since the DA’s interests don’t align perfectly with the victim’s family. Typically mediation has been used in the criminal context only post-conviction, to determine sentencing, and never in cases involving violent crimes. Even if this isn’t quite mediation, it’s interesting to see an alternative approach being used in criminal cases to everyone’s satisfaction.  


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