Restorative Justice in Murder Cases

The CBS TV news program “60 Minutes” did a story Sunday May 12, called “The Most Unlikely Meeting,” about using restorative justice principles to bring together family members of murder victims face-to-face with the murderers. Interviews with both the family members and the convicted murderers demonstrate the power of this process. One murderer admits that he cannot explain why he pulled the trigger, but highly regrets what he did, and receiving the forgiveness of his victim’s sister has brought him some measure of peace, even though he’s likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. The sister explained how she was herself a prisoner to her bitterness and unforgiveness, and she has been freed by getting to talk with her brother’s killer. Other stories are similarly moving.

These encounters, all in Wisconsin, are facilitated by the Restorative Justice Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. The program claims it has facilitated a hundred of these interviews over the last ten years, as well as launching other efforts to improve the criminal justice system.

In my own limited experience with restorative justice efforts, we’ve steered away from felonies and personal injury crimes, believing them to be “too hard” to facilitate. But, the greater the crime, the deeper the need for healing, on both sides. The UW RJ Project shows what’s possible.

Peacemaking Doesn’t Mean Passivity

“Peace is not just about the absence of conflict; it’s also about the presence of justice. Martin Luther King Jr. even distinguished between ‘the devil’s peace’ and God’s true peace. A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” 
Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan, 2010)


Mother Forgives Son’s Killer

Stories of forgiveness are literally extraordinary—outside of the ordinary. One took place in a Grand Rapids courtroom last week. As reported by the Grand Rapids Press, Javika Wallace-Hawkins faced the man who murdered her son Andre last year, and told him, “I have forgiven you from the bottom of my heart.”

Andre was just 17 when he was killed last year by Vicente Rodriguez-Ortiz. Apparently Vicente thought Andre was romantically involved with Vicente’s ex-girlfriend. One night last January while Andre was sitting in his car with a friend in a residential neighborhood, Vicente approached and fired his gun at Andre. Andre died later that night in a hospital from multiple gunshot wounds. A jury convicted Vicente of first-degree murder last month. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is 23.

At the sentencing hearing last week, Ms. Wallace-Hawkins said she had to forgive Vicente. “As a mother, you’re a child to me, and in my heart, I have no anger or bitterness toward you. As a mom, I just want to hug you because I know there is something that’s not connected, that made you feel so angry for a person you didn’t know,” she said through tears.

In her statement, Ms. Wallace-Hawkins managed to get past her grief and pain to empathize with her son’s murderer. It sounds like she recognized that something inside him was broken – “not connected” – and that realization touched the part of her heart that is a loving mother. It’s a beautiful lesson in how to forgive. We honor this grieving mother who did the hard work of moving her heart to a place where she could express forgiveness like this.


Forgiveness that liberates after decades

A woman named Kathy thought she had forgiven the high school classmates who had assaulted her when she was sixteen. Decades later, she realized she had more work to do.

Kathy told her story to Nancy DeMoss Wohlgemuth in an episode that was broadcast today on Revive Our Hearts.  “One of the things that had made it so painful was, it was done by boys who I thought were friends, and there was more than one boy. All of the years that I had buried this, I told no one. I thought, Well, it will go away. It will go away. I did bury it deep. For a long time, as a matter of fact, it did go away, but I would have flashes back. I kept remembering how I hated, how I hated them.”

Decades later, while on a church retreat, she realized she had not forgiven, even though she thought she had. “I think one of the reasons I thought I had forgiven was that two of the men had died and there was nothing . . . That was kind of a question then, ‘Do I need to forgive? They’re gone.’”

But, as she says, “God did a work in my heart. I talked to Him a long time at an altar. We just had a long conversation about this. Then I began to feel like, ‘Well, maybe I haven’t totally forgiven.'” She realized that, for her, totally forgiving would include expressing that publicly. She told her husband, and she told other women during a church conference on forgiveness:

“I have really striven to be faithful to God and to try to do His work. But I know that until I release all of those things, no matter how far past, I won’t be free. And I say in front of you today, I forgive those boys who are men now, older than me. I forgive them, and I pray for them.”

She reports that it was liberating: “It was joyful. It was painful, too, because it’s like letting go of something that’s been a part of you so long that it almost hurts to get it out. But once it’s out, it feels so good. It’s a part of you that is there, that in some way justifies, I guess, the way you feel.  But once it comes out, then you feel clean, and you feel whole. And you feel like, ‘That was something I didn’t want there after all.’ It was like a crutch, and I got rid of that.”

Forgiveness is hard enough when the offender repents and confesses; Kathy received none of that, yet she was still able to forgive, by the grace of God. She chose to work through forgiveness even though two of her assailants already died; that fact didn’t diminish the benefits of forgiveness. It’s interesting that she felt a need to state publicly that she was forgiving; it’s a good way to hold herself accountable, knowing that one day she may have second thoughts about this, human nature being what it is. Note that, even in her public statement, she never identified her assailants, resisting the temptation to humiliate them in revenge. Forgiveness experts remind us that God doesn’t tell people about our sins when God forgives us, so neither should we tattle if we really aim to forgive. There are exceptions, of course; see RT Kendall, Total Forgiveness. Kathy exemplified genuine forgiveness by not revealing the identities of her offenders; she’ll leave that to God.


Daughter’s Forgiveness Brings Soldier Peace

An American World War II soldier found peace when he met with the daughter of the Japanese soldier he had killed.

The story ran on 60 Minutes last night, describing the battle on Attu, a remote Aleutian Island. After killing the Japanese soldier during battle, the American soldier realized they had much in common, and felt remorse about what he’d done. He had ongoing nightmares. Decades later, he found the Japanese soldier’s daughter, who lives in California, and asked to meet her. The daughter–who was only 3 months old when her father died–was angry when she first met the man who had killed her father, and didn’t want to have any more contact with him. Ten years after meeting the soldier who killed her father, she received a gift: her father’s Bible. It had been salvaged from the battlefield by another American soldier who sent it to her. She said the Bible gave her strength–implying it’s what compelled her to keep wondering why the soldier had confessed to her, and it’s what helped her realize that he needed forgiveness. So she wrote him a letter and encouraged him to forgive himself. He said he had his first peaceful night’s sleep in decades. The daughter and the aging American soldier became friends.

Somehow this daughter was able to forgive her father’s killer. One test of forgiveness is that you truly want the best for the person who harmed you. She suspected that he was suffering from guilt, and she wanted to relieve him of that. She was the only person who could give him peace, and she had every right to withhold that. Instead, she forgave.


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