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, more than any other commentator or spokesman for tough on crime policies, remains practically a solitary holdout for the status quo as Washington cheers on the reform movement. And, as I explain in the story, Otis is worth watching because he has some impressive 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.  

One woman’s legacy

At The Intercept, journalist Liliana Segura today published a powerful story with facts remarkably parallel to the story that will mark the debut of my upcoming series on crime victims.

Segura’s story focuses on Paula Cooper, who killed herself in May, two years after her release from prison for a notorious murder. The most remarkable twist in Cooper’s sad story involves Bill Pelke, the grandson of Cooper’s victim. Segura writes:

The more Bill learned about Paula, the more he was certain his grandmother would have forgiven her. He tried to visit her in prison, but was denied permission — it was against policy to allow convicted murderers to see members of their victim’s family. So Bill and Paula wrote letters. Their correspondence would last years. When 19-year-old Paula’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in July 1989, Bill’s first words were, “Praise the Lord!” And by the time she was released on good behavior, on June 17, 2013, neither was the same person they had been in 1985. Paula was a grown women who had earned her GED, multiple degrees, and the support of prisoners and activists alike. Bill, now in his 60s, had founded Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, one of the most influential anti-death penalty groups in the country, led by victims of crime. He had also gained permission to see Paula, visiting her 14 times.

The story that starts my series, which will be published soon at Slate, looks at a similar survivor who had a similar response to the person who harmed her loved one. We are so conditioned to expect, even demand, that victims act only one way that no matter how many times we hear of victims like Bill Pelke we act surprised. The point of my story is to look at another memorable victim-offender encounter, and then to use it as a window into questions about how victim advocacy has come to be defined in ways that marginalizes the kind of work Pelke does.

Paula Cooper’s story is not a happy one. These stories don’t lend themselves to happy endings. But the lessons we can draw from learning about Cooper’s journey, and her effect on Pelke, can only help the rest of us understand different ways of reacting to crime.

Glass half-full

In the first two parts of a three-part New York Review of Books series on the quality of journalism online, Michael Massing has amassed a thoughtful collection of reported anecdotes that serves as an unusually detailed snapshot of the current state of the industry. Part one evaluates the quality of first-generation online journalism and declares it kind of “meh.” Part two asks how digital startups of more recent vintage have fared. His verdict: disappointing and uneven, with such heralded innovations as longform narratives “stillborn.” (Massing says his third part will appear later this year.)

While I appreciate Massing’s focus on editorial quality instead of the usual hand-wringing about the commercial prospects of online publishing, I see his take on things as entirely too pessimistic — at least when it concerns the criminal-justice journalism that I pay close attention to.

I’m not a preternaturally positive guy, especially on the topic of quality journalism. After all, consider: a decimated business model in traditional publishing; stagnant wages and free-falling freelance rates; the ascendance of the most vapid forms of journalism as product-promoting PR, celebrity-celebrating fluff, and listicle-churning clickbait. I regularly see friends and former colleagues laid off, fellow freelancers abandoning journalism for gigs as sponsored-content writers, and newsroom morale rotting in a stew of idiotic corporate Dilbert-itis and quality-killing staffing losses. In crime news specifically, it’s far easier to find exploitative, mindless scare stories aimed at fueling rage and resentment than to see stories deeply reported and emotionally powerful that offer solutions and understanding.

But here are some snapshots of my own that show why developments in the past year or two justify optimism:

SO MUCH GOOD STUFF

Here’s last week’s City and Regional Magazine Awards‘ crime-heavy winners list. That’s not surprising, considering what any major journalism awards list looks like year after year. There is such a surfeit of deeply reported, meaningful journalism and so many ways to find it — from curated sites and feeds, and from daily newsletters like those from The Marshall Project and The Crime Report — that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. And equally impossible to take seriously the frequently made claim that “the media” (as if it’s just one, monolithic thing) don’t care about substance.

I recently abandoned my unpaid work in keeping my own list of standout stories, simply because the volume overwhelmed me and was seriously cutting into my productive time to earn a living doing this work instead of just talking about it. (I still post links to such stories several times a day on my social-media feeds, though I no longer feel obligated to read and critique more than I can fit into my schedule.)

Last week’s conference of Investigative Reporters & Editors drew about 1,800 journalists to several days of high-level seminars on producing public-interest, accountability journalism. Judging from my Twitter feed, the conference continues to grow and has lost none of its power as an inspirational gathering of the craft’s leading practitioners.

The point is: If you claim this kind of journalism is going away, then you’re just not looking for it.

SO MUCH FRESH TALENT

On Saturday night, one of my former students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Julie McMahon of the Syracuse Post-Standard, won AP New York state honors as young journalist of the year. She also won first places for beat reporting (she covers the cops beat) and for features. Here is her winning story, a powerful story about a gunshot victim’s recovery. In just her first few years as a pro, she has shown she has the brains, skills, and work ethic to carve out a significant role for herself in a business (both generally, and specifically at the Post-Standard) that has been declared all but dead.

She is hardly alone in that. Look, for example, at the winners and their work in the recently announced Livingston Awards, where important criminal-justice stories dominate.

SO MANY AMBITIOUS STARTUPS

Though The Marshall Project gets most of the attention, as the boldest crime-focused digital-journalism startup — and deservedly, as its stellar team consistently produces smart, deep storytelling on the most important policy topics — crime stories with true merit regularly sprout at such sites as The Intercept, Reveal, Vox, Yahoo News, Vice, The Atavist, TakePart, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, Matter, Texas Tribune (and many other regional digital-news outlets), podcasts such as Life of the Law and Criminal, and many others. Not to mention old-timers like Politico, Slate, and Alternet.

Will they all survive while sustaining the current output of ambitious journalism? Of course not. But think back just a few years, to a time when all we ever heard was naysaying about the potential for any seeds to sprout in the Web’s fallow soil. Here we are, awash in good stuff by new players, at traditional and digital-native operations alike, and by young and not-so-young journalists making a living at it.

Massing’s point is broader than my crime-specific take on the business. But, from what I see happening in the journalism of science, politics, sports, culture, and business, crime journalism is no outlier. Though the business models continue to struggle for footing, we’re creating the necessary precursor for any successful business and industry: a quality product that draws an audience and serves the public interest.

Charnice and David

Charnice Milton, age 27
Charnice Milton, age 27
David Butler, age 42
David Butler, age 42

I’ve spent the past year interviewing dozens of crime victims and survivors of murder victims, and so sometimes I’m asked what my connection is to victims of crime — whether I’ve been a victim, or lost a loved one. I always say no, that I have been fortunate not to have any direct experience with what I try to describe.

That’s mostly true. But I never mention David Butler, a colleague long ago at The Houston Post. I barely knew David — he was a copy editor in the main office, while I was a downtown bureau reporter, and we rarely worked together on stories — but when I saw him in April 2000 in Houston at a Post reunion, we chatted and I was reminded of his nerdy charms: a bookish, relentlessly straight-arrow guy. Three months later, David was on his way home to Arlington, Virginia, from work as an editor at Stars and Stripes in Washington, D.C., when a robber shot him to death for his wallet. Police never solved the case.

Yesterday, I learned of Charnice Milton’s shooting death, also in Washington. I met Charnice in 2011, when I taught at Syracuse University. She was a graduate journalism student at the Newhouse School. Though she never took a class from me, I met her when I put out the call for applicants to attend a three-day trip I organized each year to Manhattan for visits with magazine editors. Charnice struck me as earnest and shy, almost painfully so, but once I spent time with her on the drives down and back to the city, and in the meetings at magazine offices, I saw a serious young woman intent on making a career in journalism. Like David Butler, Charnice was uncommonly innocent. While her classmates partied hard after hours, Charnice went sightseeing. And when her classmates shyly or sullenly remained silent during meetings with editors, I could count on her to fill those moments with a barrage of questions. It was easy to admire her spirit.

Charnice was killed Wednesday night while changing buses as she made her way home after covering a community meeting for Capital Community News. Police told the Washington Post that Charnice was struck by a bullet fired at someone else. The Post‘s description of her work filled me with sadness, as I got a belated update on what Charnice had made of her dream since I last saw her:

Milton was known as a tireless advocate for the communities east of the Anacostia where she lived and chronicled everyday life, using grass-roots-style journalism whether profiling a lifelong Ward 7 resident and avid cyclist or examining penalties for selling alcohol to minors.

“Not only did they gun down a young woman, they also silenced one of our reporters,” said Andrew Lightman, managing editor of Capital Community News, where Milton was a regular contributor. “I think it’s a real loss not only for us and her family but also the communities that she covered. . . . She was one of a handful of reporters across the District who was looking at the nuts and bolts of everyday life.”

My sorrow for these two gentle people, killed doing the work they loved, pales next to the grief suffered by those who knew them far more intimately. But their deaths remind me of the duty I have to imagine and then describe what each loss means.

The myth of closure

Can someone please tell all elected officials and pundits to strike the word “closure” from their vocabulary when they’re talking about crime victims? Boston Mayor Martin Walsh predictably invoked the term after the jury’s verdict for the death penalty was announced Friday in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “I hope this verdict,” the mayor said in a prepared statement, “provides a small amount of closure to the survivors, families, and all impacted by the violent and tragic events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon.”

As many victims are quick to point out, and as much of the research of victims’ experiences shows, there is no such thing as closure. If by closure we mean the bad experience comes to an end, and it can be put behind us, then we’re imposing impossible expectations on victims — and on the justice system that we expect to deliver this magical emotional state.

Every victim of violent trauma I have ever interviewed sounds like the marathon survivors quoted in these Boston Globe and New York Times stories after the verdict. They talk about a weight lifted, turning a page, feeling satisfaction when the person who harmed them has been held accountable and punished. What I especially liked about those stories was the variety of viewpoints aired without judgment. Victims deserve space, and help, to come to their own conclusions about what works. And they need time to evolve, as so many victims do, traveling from anger to some version of peace. They can’t close that part of their life, but they can eventually make peace with it.

The value of a high profile case like this is that the extensive storytelling surrounding the event and the characters lets us hear in more detail how real people cope with loss and trauma. There are lessons in this — if we listen — about what all crime victims experience to one degree or another. Hardly any crime victims get the kind of support that the marathon victims have received, monetary and emotional. That’s not a knock against these victims. They suffered terribly, they were targeted as symbols of our country, and they deserve anything and everything we can give them. But we must remember that the best other victims normally can hope for is a check to cover some funeral expenses, a brief stint in counseling, and some help in navigating a criminal justice system that will listen to them only when their views align with prosecutors’.

Perhaps these lessons won’t sink in with politicians. But the rest of us can remember them the next time we feel the urge to impose our own assumptions on how victim ought to feel.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business