Policing without oppressing

Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department's revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.
Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department’s revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.

Over on my Facebook page this week, I’ve been posting a series of updates on my latest project, a feature story on policing controversies and solutions. I spent the week in and around Minneapolis, watching one police department as it engaged with its community in constructive ways — and another as it tries to do the same, but remains dogged by its long history of heavy-handed, brutal tactics.

At the heart of this story, which will be published in December, is the tension between effective crime control and the trust police must earn among the law-abiding majority in high-crime neighborhood. It’s the loss of that trust that made itself heard loud and clear the past couple of years, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore and beyond. Throughout these controversies are longstanding racial tensions and the long history of discriminatory law enforcement throughout this country. In Minneapolis, there’s an added layer of complexity with the region’s recent influx of Muslims, many from Somalia.

The problems have solutions, which is what I will focus my story on. To show glimpses of this work in progress, I posted a number of times as I reported the story, on Monday, Tuesday, twice on Wednesday (here and here), and at the conclusion of the trip. The posts don’t go into great detail about the story or my thinking — I’m still developing the facts and my conclusions as I report through next week — but I share these snippets as a way of showing the nature of this kind of reporting work and the issues I’m interested in.

Another victim of church’s abuse speaks

GodsNobodies_cover_squareSoon after the December 2012 publication of my true-crime Kindle Single God’s Nobodies: Misguided Faith and Murder in the Life of One American Family, I came under attack by supporters of the church at the center of the tragedy I wrote about. They claimed that I lied about their beloved minister to further an anti-Christian agenda and to sneer at their moral stand against homosexuality, when in fact the real purpose of my story was to show how the church’s cultish form of social control backfired badly and destroyed a family. The story examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Pam Ginocchetti at the hands of her son, Syracuse University student Tim Ginocchetti.

During my reporting for God’s Nobodies, and after its publication, I spoke to numerous former church members who confirmed various elements of what I had learned about the Ginocchettis’ experience. But one in particular, who just surfaced last week, tells a story so remarkably similar to Tim Ginocchetti’s — about a homophobia extreme enough, paired with obedience to a minister absolute enough, to tear a former church member from his family — that I want to share what he told me, with his permission.

Twenty years ago, on his 21st birthday, Michael Marasco came out to his family. He had feared their reaction as he grew up with the knowledge that he is gay, because of what he knew would be the minister’s response: condemnation, followed by pseudo-medical treatment of his condition. Marasco’s fears began to be realized when his mother  sided with her church against her son. As he described it to me in an email:

I remember the Sunday after coming out to my family my mother stood up in church and announced that I told her I was gay and that she would never support my lifestyle decision. I walked out of the church, drove home packed my things….

That ended Marasco’s contact with his parents, sister, and brother — with everyone in his family and with whom he’d grown up in the church, other than family members who also had left the church — for many years. As I documented in God’s Nobodies, the minister counsels his members to shun defectors from the church, even immediate family members (he’s careful never to articulate his mandates unambiguously and publicly, but somehow it happens again and again that members heed his hints and act accordingly).

Marasco goes on to note the parallels between his life and Tim Ginocchetti’s: Marasco’s grandparents were the live-in caretakers of the church’s lakeside retreat property, Bethany Retreat (later on, Tim’s parents were the minister’s choice as caretakers; it’s where Tim grew up); Marasco’s mother and Pam Ginocchetti were close friends; Marasco was close friends with Timothy Lynch, the firefighter killed along with Tim’s father, John Ginocchetti, in the tragedy that began the Ginocchetti family’s unraveling.

Marasco fondly remembers the family before all of that:

At the end of services, John was always the first to greet me with his firm handshake and warm embrace. As we waited in line he would talk to me about electricity and construction (things he knew I loved doing with my grandfather growing up at Bethany). In my personal opinion John was one of the most real and down to earth people I met at church. I remember the first time John & Pam invited my family to their newly renovated caretakers home at Bethany (formerly my grandparents home) John showing me all of the new gadgets he had installed and Tim, so excited to show me his bedroom that once was mine during my frequent visits to my grandparents on weekends and during the summer when school was out. Pam too was an amazing host, welcoming us warmly into her home and preparing an Italian dinner of lasagna and meatballs (crazy how I remember that) which were enjoyed over casual conversation.

How this sweet, devoted family ended up so devastated, and its love turned to hate and bitterness, was the central question I pursued in God’s Nobodies. The answers always led back to the minister and the church.

In Marasco’s case, the rigid social rules of the church sent him into exile from his family. In Tim’s case, he stayed with his widowed mother. After her years of abuse over his effeminate ways and threats to subject Tim to the minister’s forceful intervention, Pam edged closer than ever to confronting Tim over his deeply hidden homosexuality. Just days after his 21st birthday, Tim exploded in anger and killed her. He is now nine years into a 15-year prison sentence. When his grandmother, Esther Rufo, stepped forward to describe the relationship between Tim and her daughter Pam, and revealed the role of the secretive church, she lost her husband of 50 years and virtually all contact with her remaining two children and grandchildren.

I never doubted the truth of what I wrote about the church’s methods and their destructive effects on some members’ lives. But I am grateful that Marasco had the courage to tell his story publicly.

Part 5: Victims seeking a cure for violence

Adela Barajas in front of the South LA community center she urged the city to build to keep her neighborhood kids safer.
Adela Barajas in front of the South LA community center she urged the city to build to keep her neighborhood kids safer.

In the fifth installment of my series on crime victims at Slate, published today, I visit the heartland of tough-on-crime policies — California — to look at a thriving subculture of crime victims and others whose work in crime prevention and gang intervention belies myths about who victims are and what they need.

In the simplistic binaries preferred by partisans, crime invites two alternate approaches: the conservative one that treats our cities and their black and brown majorities as amoral killing grounds that can only be cleaned up through iron-fisted policing and extreme prison sentences; and the liberal one that focuses on addressing police brutality and mass incarceration without worrying much about the predominately black and brown victims of everyday violence and disorder.

There is a third way, and it’s what I set out in search of in this latest story. I focused on Los Angeles activists, in part because of the city’s long history of police-community tensions, which have boiled over spectacularly twice, in the riots of 1965 and 1992, and because of California’s leading role in promoting policies advocated by and for crime victims that ratcheted up prison sentences and gave us an historic prison boom. The victims who favor these get-tougher policies are the ones we’re used to hearing from. The people and programs I write about in this story show a different side to victim advocacy, one in which prevention, making peace, and treating trauma take priority. And where there is no great divide between victims and offenders; they are all part of the same community, often the same families.

My subjects include:

  • The Southern California Cease Fire Committee, longtime gang interventionists who work, at times uneasily, with law enforcement.
  • Father Greg Boyle and his Homeboy Industries, offering former prisoners and gang members an escape from crime through meaningful job training and other needed services.
  • Karl Cruz, another activist in a faith-based program whose past as a gang member helps him connect with youth in his San Fernando Valley community.
  • Adela Barajas, whose tribute to her slain sister-in-law is a program called L.A.U.R.A., which provides comfort for the families of murder victims and an alternative for the neighborhood’s children who otherwise would be sucked into gangs and crime.

Among the more clueless reactions to the “Black Lives Matter” movement are claims that protesting police brutality obscures the real problem: violence within black and brown communities. In these critics’ view, there must be something wrong with those communities’ culture or they would do more to prevent violence. The people in my story demonstrate how preposterous those assumptions are. They work hard every day, over the span of decades, to make their communities safer. They have all witnessed or been the victims of violence repeatedly, and know the communities of victims and of the imprisoned are often one in the same. And they show that a true partnership between police and citizens requires strategies that transcend the discredited approaches from the era of zero-tolerance policing.

On this page of my site, I link to all five stories in the series published so far. The sixth and final story, assessing the restorative justice movement’s potential to solve many of the problems pointed out in the series, is coming soon.

Part 4: Victims, policing, and trust

Eric Garner's death and then the murders of two NYPD officers made Susan Herman's job immeasurably harder.
Eric Garner’s death and then the murders of two NYPD officers made Susan Herman’s job immeasurably harder.

Part 4 of my crime victims series, now available at Slate, asks what happens when you put a veteran  victims’ advocate in charge of the cultural makeover of the nation’s largest police department. That’s what has been happening in New York for the past year and a half, with the subject of my story, Susan Herman, working behind the scenes to carry out NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s mission to mend relations with communities of color while simultaneously improving services for crime victims.

Herman is no ordinary victims’ advocate. She articulates a different approach to serving victims, one that emphasizes doing much more for victims who are more often hunted by the police than helped by them; young, black men, in particular. Trying to accomplish that from inside NYPD while addressing the department’s racially tense community relations at such a volatile time, with such a vocal community of police critics in New York, makes Herman’s job seem impossible — until you see what she’s done already.

When I first planned this story in 2013,  Herman was a criminal-justice professor at Pace University pushing a philosophy of policing and victim services she calls parallel justice (which I explain in the story, and wrote about here several years ago). Then came her appointment as deputy commissioner for collaborative policing at NYPD. Then came Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all the rest. The story evolved, following events right up to the present. What was to be one window into the victims-services world turned into an examination of a much more complex set of issues at the heart of policing and victim services.

I look forward to hearing readers’ comments on Slate, here on this blog, or on my social media sites.

Part 3: Tough-on-crime’s last true believer

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Bill Otis, testifying at a House hearing in 2014

The third in my series on crime victims, now published at Slate, arose from my  disposition as a journalist (and, I suppose, as a person) to be contrary. I don’t mean that in the ornery or negative sense, but in the skeptical sense. As I looked around the criminal-justice reform community, and the media coverage of it, I saw such unanimity of opinion on the inevitability of reform’s passage that it made me wonder: What might they be missing?

And that’s how I settled on profiling Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor who writes about criminal justice at the Crime and Consequences blog. Otis remains practically a solitary holdout for the status quo in tough-on-crime sentencing policy as Washington cheers on the reform movement. And, as I explain in the story, Otis is worth watching because he has some effective trump cards to play that just might keep his side winning (as it has been all along).

My story examines Otis’ victim-themed arguments for maintaining the status quo in federal sentencing laws (and the logic extends to the states as well). I chide reformers for failing to voice a loud enough victim-centered counter-argument (though I do note some significant new voices starting to find a way to say that reducing punishment can be done in tandem with policies that help victims).

But my underlying point is one that’s articulated in the story by Otis’ frequent sparring partner, Doug Berman of Ohio State, who writes his own influential blog on sentencing from a more liberal point of view. I only touch on it in the story, but in my interview with Berman he explained at more length why he values Otis’ role in the debate even though the two can hardly agree on anything:

I do think it’s an enduring shame that we don’t have as much rigorous public policy debate about these issues as I think is needed. I think it’s a particular shame that both Bill and I have to resort to comments on blogs to really have somebody to mix it up with in a setting that I think should lead to lots and lots of mixing it up. …

It’s only as a result of really sustained engagement with these issues that you go from a useful but superficial first-cut instinct about a lot of this stuff, to get deeper into what’s really at stake, who are the real winners and losers in different proposals.

That’s why I read Otis regularly, and why I decided to write about him in a series that asks what needs of victims we neglect when we focus only on tough sentencing as justice for victims. His passionate, clear writing articulates the view that has prevailed for decades. And there’s a reason that it has — because many believe it.

There’s a bit of know-thy-enemy in my story, but I have a hard time thinking of Otis as an enemy, given his gracious agreement to talk to me. He recognized my obviously opposite leanings (a favorite target of Otis’ is the philanthropist George Soros, whose money funded the Soros Justice Fellowship that paid for my work on my series for the past year; also, Slate’s liberal leanings are hardly a secret). And yet he gamely engaged with me.

Full disclosure: Before I decided to write my story about Otis, he and I mixed it up in the comments on this blog post. I criticized him for his attack on a news story that I praised. The comments back and forth got a little heated. To some, that might justify a permanent grudge. But, like Berman, I believe there’s value when we see our ideas challenged. We might modify our ideas, or at least our strategy, as a result. Plus, the debate-club nerd in me (and, I suspect, in Otis) enjoys the mental exercise. It’s invigorating.

One other bit of backstory: As with all of the stories in this series, I began the research and reporting in spring 2014 and continued through the rest of that year and into the spring of 2015. I drafted this story in January and then revised it and updated it, after getting edits back, in June and July. In the Internet age, such a protracted schedule is unheard of, but it’s the nature of such a large beast as this series. But for this story in particular, given its strong grounding in the news, I spent a great deal of time in a state of anxiety, worried that something major would change in Washington politics to undermine the entire point of the story. Would Sen. Charles Grassley convert to the reform side? Would key legislation pass, contrary to my thesis that the traditionalists still hold sway? It seems we’re on the verge of new proposals that might unstick what’s stuck. But, at least for now, Washington’s gridlock didn’t magically disappear while my story was in queue. The basic storyline I developed more than a year ago never really changed, although I kept busy updating examples and developments in the interim between drafting it and publishing it.

In just the past few days, we’ve seen this by Andrew Cohen on the enduring politics of tough-on-crime, and this report by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (a group Otis has worked with), with a counterattack by Families Against Mandatory Minimums), all of which adds up to pushback by the tough-on-crime side. So I’m glad that my story on Mr. Pushback himself has finally been published — before everyone else gets in on this theme.


Part 2 in a series: victims who counsel prisoners

Albert and Michelle Cotton
Albert and Michelle Cotton

The second story in my series at Slate on crime victims has now been published. Like the first, on the mother of a murder victim whose dramatic meeting with her daughter’s killer I witnessed, this story grew out of reporting I’ve done for years on restorative justice. I ran across both White and the man who runs the program I write about this week, John Sage of Bridges to Life, five years ago when working on other projects. I’m glad I was able, finally, to bring their stories to a prominent national forum.

Not all of my series focuses on restorative justice — the third, fourth, and fifth stories look at other questions concerning who victims are and what they need — but the final installment will return to restorative justice with an assessment of whether that movement can gain enough acceptance in this country to address the biggest challenges my series is pointing out.

What intrigued me most about Bridges to Life,  a prisoner-counseling program based in Texas, is not just what it does for prisoners to teach them to live more responsibly, but what it can do for the crime victims who serve as volunteer counselors. By sharing with the prisoners the stories of what crime did to them and their families, what do the victims get from it? They shared their stories with me to show to others why someone deeply harmed by crime — many of them are survivors of murder victims — would want to step inside a prison and work to improve the lives of prisoners who live in shame for the harm they caused others.

One of the people I interviewed in Houston for this story who didn’t make it into the final version is a Bridges to Life volunteer, but he was not a crime victim. Instead, he spent more than 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at age 17. He and his friends jumped a man and his son who were waiting for a bus. Cotton chased down the father and, in a struggle for his money, shot him.

In all his years in prison, the one program that made a deep impression on Cotton was Bridges to Life. He decided when he got out that he would volunteer to teach youth from his own horrible experience what can go wrong, and how to avoid such a life. While holding down a good  job and buying his first house with his wife Michelle — his middle school sweetheart with whom he reunited after his release — Cotton takes the time to go juvenile jails and give his talks. He tells the kids what it is like to have spent his 20s and 30s behind bars, and what it’s like to know that somewhere lives a man about his age who has spent the past 29 years without a father.

Cotton told me, “Sometimes I look at a class and wonder if I can help save any of them. But, at that point, you really never know.” He does know that if he doesn’t try, then they likely won’t get the message from someone whose word they trust as authentic. “At their age,” Cotton says, “if somebody could have spoke to me, I don’t know if that would have changed me. But I would have liked to see. I would like to have had that opportunity.”

As my visit at Cotton’s North Houston house was winding up, I noticed a sign in his front yard: “PRIVATE PROPERTY. LAST WARNING.” I asked Cotton about it. His answer struck me as both ironic and hopeful, about a man many would have written off as hopeless, but who spent a long time incarcerated and now tries to live a good life and give back to the community. In other words, people can change.

He explained the sign went up after he experienced crime first hand. “Somebody tried to steal my truck out of the driveway,” he said. “Busted my window.” His voice turned incredulous at the nerve of the thief: “It’s like, here it is, I’m workin’ for that!”

He is indeed. And, by every indication, we’re all better off that he is, instead of having gone to his execution or died in prison. That his commitment to do better was inspired by crime victims makes his atonement all the more satisfying.

A changed life

I complained in my last post about reactions to my most recent story that caused me to despair about the work that I do. But something happened today to set things right.

First, about last week: I wasn’t surprised that many readers disagreed with my story’s conclusions. After all, a story about a woman who goes beyond forgiveness of her daughter’s killer to have a caring relationship with him is bound to be controversial. But I found it disheartening that many of the harshest reactions seemed based on gut assumptions rather than on the facts in the story. Clearly, many didn’t even bother to read the story they were condemning. I consider the main purpose of my stories to be educational — to explain a slice of the world that you may not have imagined — and not advocacy journalism. So it’s not my goal to change your heart so much as to open your mind. When that doesn’t happen — or, rather, when the people making the most noise in anonymous comments demonstrate that it didn’t happen for them — it’s easy to lose heart.

Now for what restored a bit of my faith in my own ability to write stories that make an impact. I was featured in a Q&A about my work in the latest issue of ASJA Magazine, the publication for members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (it’s behind a paywall, or I’d share a link). In the article,  by ASJA’s president Randy Dotinga, I mentioned a cover story I wrote two years ago for Pacific Standard magazine on post-traumatic growth, a psychological phenomenon in which violent trauma can trigger positive growth in its victim. The point of the story was to show an upside to trauma, and maybe to teach that even traumatic injury as severe as PTSD could turn into something positive for some people. The story generated quite a few social-media posts and letters to the editor, but I didn’t get a clear sense of its impact on readers. As I told Dotinga, “I’d like to think it changed how people see trauma and recovery, but it’s hard to know of any concrete difference it made.”

Today I got an email from an ASJA member who read the Q&A and then read the Pacific Standard feature. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t quote the email in its entirety. But she told me she was a victim of a violent crime nearly 20 years ago. Plagued by nightmares, she ultimately changed the focus of her work to achieve what she called a more “well-rounded life.” She’d always thought of her reactions to her trauma as a means of coping to counteract the harm that was done to her. After reading my story, she now sees it in a new light, as a positive change that sprang from something terrible. She didn’t just struggle to bounce back; she grew. She concluded, “Your take changed my perspective on the past 20 years or so of my existence.”

That, my friends, is what’s known in my business as a rich reward for the work that I do.

“I know what I’d do”

Not many people would imagine themselves doing what Linda White has done after losing a child in a violent crime. It’s perfectly natural to imagine taking revenge against the killer, or at the very least seeking his permanent removal from society.

And so one key point of my recently published story about White was to explore her reasons for moving from that typical starting point to a much different place. Her radical form of forgiveness for Gary Brown, one of two 15-year-olds who abducted, raped, and killed White’s 26-year-old daughter Cathy O’Daniel in 1986, did not happen by magic or fluke. It was a process. The story walks the reader through that years-long process — which famously culminated in a mediated encounter in prison in 2001 — and then observes as the two meet again, in 2014, at my invitation.

Another key point was to take what we see in White’s experience and place it in a broader context. As I attempted to show in the story, ignoring or marginalizing the Linda Whites of the crime-victim world has had a perverse effect on public policy and opinion. We like to say that we support crime victims, but in reality we want them to fit our preconceived notions of victimhood. All too often, we don’t truly listen to victims to discover the full range of who they are and what they need. We don’t pay enough attention to their journeys as their reactions change, from anger to questioning to various forms of letting go — which is, fundamentally, what forgiveness is all about. It’s certainly not the only way to come to terms with a traumatic injury and loss, nor should it ever be imposed on victims who aren’t ready or never will accept it. But it exists and should be understood for what it is: an important part of the victim experience.

So it was no small irony that many of the hundreds of comments that readers posted to that story not only rejected White’s views, they didn’t even try to listen to them. Many expressed disdain or revulsion toward White. One I saw even wished that Brown would kill White to prove to White how wrong she is (it was at that point that I decided to stop reading the comments for a while). It was evident to me that many commenters merely saw the headline and a photo of White and Brown smiling together and promptly reached their verdict on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. In other words, a story about how we don’t listen closely enough to all victims produced an outpouring of the same.

A public weaned on ideologically driven opinions masquerading as news is comfortable reaching snap judgments without doing the hard work of exploring, sifting through facts, weighing evidence-based arguments. It also isn’t clued in to the distinction between empathy and sympathy; between understanding others, even those with whom we disagree, and blanket endorsements. Why can’t we read about someone who contradicts our assumptions and accept that the world is more complicated than we knew? Instead, many reject it out of hand, and ascribe bad motives to the story subject, the writer, or both.

I was wrestling with all of those reactions to my story when I read this recent Columbia Journalism Review article by researchers Lene Bech Sillesen, Chris Ip, and David Uberti. They describe their work in seeking to understand how journalistic narrative evokes empathy, and how that might change when the narrative is read online rather than in print. They write:

We need a certain amount of information about another person, accumulated over time, before we start sensing that crucial similarity between us.

Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative. In magazine journalism, this makes perfect, intuitive sense. We know that longer narratives with complex characters and strong storylines can have a deep impact on readers who take the time to read from start to finish.

That is why my stories about crime victims — the one on Linda White is the first in a series — are told as character-driven narratives rather than as policy-argument essays. I can tell you, as the headline on the story does, what White did. But you’re unlikely to understand it and accept it (which is not the same as embracing it) if that’s all you know. To understand it, you must see her transformation, experience it as best one can reading a 6,500-word summary of 30 years of her life.

The best reaction I can hope for is to see a reader express surprise at reaching a new understanding of how the world works. Fortunately, I did see some of those sorts of comments, but they were often shouted down by others who clearly hadn’t bothered to read the story before reacting to it, or who flatly rejected White’s experience in order to describe their own imagined response; usually a violent one.

One of the moments I witnessed between White and Brown that didn’t make it into the story came during our lunch, when the two were loosening up a bit. They talked about how easily misunderstood their relationship is, how people feel compelled to tell them it’s wrong for White to have not only forgiven Brown, but to treat him as a friend. White told Brown that this is what she wants to say to those who judge and doubt her:

You do not know what you will or will not do in any given situation until you’ve been there. You just don’t know. For anyone to tell me, ‘Well I know I wouldn’t do this,’ or ‘I would do that,’ I say, ‘I don’t believe ya. I know you mean it. But you don’t KNOW always who you are and what you would do until you are confronted with it.’ And I just think it’s easy to say ‘I know what I’d do.’

What my crime victim series tries to show

What’s my point about crime victims?

During the months I’ve worked on my newly launched series at Slate on crime victims, I’ve blogged here about my work in progress and about some of the themes I’m exploring. In this particular post, I described in broad terms the point I’m trying to make in the stories I’m telling about certain people, places, and ideas. I wrote:

So far, the sentencing-reform debate has made little mention of crime victims. To the extent we think of them at all in this context, most people probably assume that any retreat from the toughest punishment policies equates to a betrayal of victims’ interests. By that thinking, sentencing reform is a zero-sum game: anything we “give” to prisoners and defendants (shorter sentences or more humane ways of promoting public safety) is something we take from victims.

What if that isn’t true? And what if the tough approach, as it has played out in politics and policy, ignores victims whose crimes go unreported and unsolved; ignores those for whom retribution toward criminals provides little lasting comfort; and paints a picture of victimhood that misunderstands who they are and what they need?

The kinds of victims and issues I explore show up from time to time in the news; to cite two familiar examples, when the families of the Charleston church massacre forgave the accused shooter, or when the parents of Boston Marathon victim Martin Richard opposed the death penalty for the bomber. These anecdotes tend to be fleeting exceptions to the rule that we expect victims to react a certain way. My series steps back and asks what all those exceptions mean.

The choices I’ve made and the conclusions I draw in my stories clearly display my point of view, which generally is to favor criminal-justice reform and to question the effectiveness and fairness of harsh punishment policies of recent decades. I hope readers will learn from the series, question my choices and conclusions, and gain a deeper appreciation for all different types of crime victims, not just the ones we tend to favor in our politics and imaginations. The point, in other words, is to listen to all victims.

The first story focuses on a remarkable reformer, Linda White, who took me up on my invitation to meet face to face with the man who killed her daughter. Their dramatic reunion (their first meeting years ago launched Linda’s career as a restorative-justice advocate) taught Linda new lessons in what it means to have a relationship with someone who hurt her so deeply — and what it means when a victim and the state have very different notions of how to hold someone accountable for such a terrible crime.

Spontaneous grace

As yesterday’s remarkable scene in a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom unfolded — family members of some of the nine victims of the church massacre spoke up at accused shooter Dylann Roof’s first court appearance to deliver their anguish directly to him over an in-court video connection, at the same time offering their forgiveness — my first thought was to wonder how a judge ever allowed this.

The answer to that question is hard to come by in news coverage of the hearing (more on that in a moment). But first, some thoughts on victim-offender dialogue and forgiveness — topics I’ve written about here and here, and that I’ll explore in depth in my upcoming series on crime victims.

In my years of reporting on this, reading the research underlying it and talking to dozens of victims and offenders who have been through it, I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing victims benefit from dialogue and forgiveness that I found the victims’ behavior yesterday less surprising than, say, comedian and writer Albert Brooks expressed in this tweet:

The president’s tweet on this topic echoed the sort of admiration we all must feel when we see such grace under horrifying circumstances:

We’re so conditioned to hearing from victims who are consumed with rage and hurt that when we see them behave differently we often act surprised. We shouldn’t be. Victims respond in many ways, usually changing as time goes on. When we let our assumptions about them drive policy — when we confuse accountability with vengeance, and project our own anger onto them — we do victims of all types a disservice. And we make a hash of punishment policies that have grown far out of whack because they’ve been driven by this misguided presumption about what all victims need.

So I should be glad to see conciliatory victims on such prominent display. But yesterday’s rush to confront and forgive comes dangerously close to subjecting the victims’ survivors to a new form of trauma. Without adequate preparation and counseling, this sort of volatile, unplanned meeting could backfire on the victims. Ordinarily, victims get a chance to speak to an offender at sentencing, or later on in mediated dialogue. The latter is especially intense and, when done correctly, requires elaborate, careful preparation. Yesterday’s session, by contrast, seems to have happened spontaneously, carrying with it an added element of possible coercion — when one victim expresses forgiveness, how can others, particularly church people, withhold the same, even if they aren’t ready to give it? I’m not saying the forgiveness wasn’t genuine, but imagine the pressure on those who didn’t speak first, or at all, to follow the prescribed route to righteousness.

How did yesterday’s encounter come about? Most of the reports I read in search of an answer — in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and NPR, among many others — merely described the scene as emotional and unexpected, treating the victim statements as something of an unexplained fluke. The closest anyone comes to explaining it that I saw was the Charleston Post and Courier‘s Andrew Knapp, who writes that Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., who rarely conducts bond hearings, simply opened the floor to the victims’ families by asking if any wanted to speak.

From all indications, Gosnell — whose remarks expressing sympathy for Roof’s family as well as for the victims later drew scorn — turned the routine hearing into something else out of a desire to unite the community at an upsetting time. But at this point there are just hints at his motives, no clear explanations. If it’s true that Gosnell was winging it, someone needs to sit him down and teach him more about proper trauma care.

In her report on the hearing, USA Today‘s Mary Nahorniak quotes defense lawyers not involved in the case who express reservations about the time and place for such victim statements. They’re worried about Roof’s right to a fair trial, as they should be. At the same time, we all should hope that the victims’ families get what they really need for the long haul: trauma care that eases them into a lifelong process of coming to grips with their shocking loss.  

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business