Category Archives: Restorative justice

Series finale: Why not restorative justice?

Dennis Wittman, founder of a groundbreaking program
Dennis Wittman, founder of a groundbreaking program

Since June, my series at Slate on crime victims has told the stories of victims and approaches to criminal justice that counter popular myths about who victims are and what they need. Three of the first five stories in particular (Parts 1, 2, and 5) pointed to a philosophy called restorative justice as the counterweight to traditional tough-on-crime policies that have given us excessive imprisonment, counterproductive policing tactics, and a punitive mentality underlying all of those systemic problems.

So why isn’t restorative justice the solution to all that ails our criminal justice system? The last in the series, which was published today, asks that question and examines why restorative justice — which focuses on what victims and communities need to heal from and prevent crime, rather than just on how to punish wrongdoing — has failed so far to fulfill the promise that its believers see in it as a powerful alternative.

Restorative-justice advocates no doubt will object to my premise, as their mission is to press for social change by pointing to all the good that restorative justice programs have accomplished already. My own series pointed out such successes, and the virtues of taking this healing, alternative approach. But as a journalist, my job is to step back and measure its impact. The conclusion I came away with was that restorative justice remains marginalized, rarely embraced by the public or policymakers, and rarely discussed in our current criminal-justice reform debate.

To show why that it is the case, I visited one of the first and most ambitious attempts to embed a restorative approach in a countywide justice system. The program in Genesee County, in western New York state, peaked early and its reforms have not proved long-lasting. The current state of affairs at a program called Genesee Justice is not all bad. As I say in the story, victims in this county enjoy a level of state-provided care that’s rare in America. But the founders’ dream, to remake justice in this county permanently and radically, is all but gone. By telling the story of how it grew and shrank, I hope to shed light on the broader restorative-justice movement and its place in American justice.

Thanks for reading.

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.

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.  

Victims, let’s make a deal

lets-make-a-deal-doorsThe latest performance of an awkward game between crime victims and prosecutors is taking place in Boston, where the Marathon bombing trial’s punishment phase starts on Tuesday. While it’s not at all uncommon for victims like the Richard family to take the stand they did against the death penalty for their son’s killer, their eloquence in a public forum — immediately following a guilt-phase trial in which prosecutors emphasized their son Martin’s death — put U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz in an especially tight jam.

Ortiz struck a diplomatic tone in her response, more so than some prosecutors facing similar predicaments in the past. Ortiz told the Boston Globe:

[A]s I have previously assured both Bill and Denise [Richard], I care deeply about their views and the views of the other victims and survivors. As the case moves forward we will continue to do all we can to protect and vindicate those injured and those who have passed away.”

In other words, a polite thank-you-for-your-input brushoff. (Presumably she has the same response to the sister of one of the other four fatalities in the case, who has also come out against executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.)

Not that it’s possible for her to fulfill the wishes of all victims of the two bombings and the subsequent manhunt, much less all members of the public she serves. But therein lies the rub. When prosecutors intent on winning the toughest possible sentences shift the focus from public justice to avenging the losses suffered by individual victims, they’re bound to confuse the issues and the stakes. Victims who need help beyond retribution end up believing that is society’s principal means of giving them justice. Victims, like the Richards, who oppose the harshest punishment — for any number of reasons, and often long after the trial when they discover it has not helped them heal — are told, in effect, to stand aside. And the public gets yet another lesson in defining justice solely as maximum punishment.

A pair of newspaper stories this week explain in two ways why the occasional prosecutor-victim conflict is a natural byproduct of tough-on-crime politics. First, Kevin Johnson’s 20th anniversary story in USA Today on the Oklahoma City federal building bombing summarized the many ways in which that case inspired a number of reforms in pro-prosecution, pro-death penalty victim rights. Left unstated: the usually silent victims who are not comforted by those measures.

Then, Los Angeles Times editorialist Michael McGough told how the victims’ rights movement redefined justice as a means “to avenge private wrongs and provide closure for crime victims and their families.” It’s a mistake, he concludes, only remedied by reverting to the traditional and official take on justice: treating crime strictly as an offense against the state. What should we do for victims in these circumstances? He doesn’t say.

There’s no single, simple solution. But, if we focused much more on what victims really need — all victims, in all their variety — then the inevitable conflicts that arise over victims’ role in our adversarial system might diminish in importance. A victim’s experience might be defined less by the outcome of her offender’s trial and more by what services we provided to ease her pain. Trials and punishment debates won’t go away, but if they occurred on a parallel track rather than existing as the only track, victims might come out of these situations with a better chance of feeling whole again.

Defining justice as anything other than punishment might sound kooky in a culture where that’s practically all we ever consider, and where the standard perspective we get of victims is as advocates for the harshest punishment. But do they choose that route because it’s the only just outcome, or because it’s the only outcome usually offered to them? As one restorative-justice advocate put it to me recently, our justice system is like the game show Let’s Make A Deal (“what’ll it be? Door Number 1, door Number 2, or door Number 3?”), but in this version there’s only one door. And of course they pick that one.

Giving them more choices and focusing on needs other than just vengeance will naturally lead to fewer cases in which victims must resort to writing newspaper op-eds to plead to be heard.

Half-right about victims

Here’s a news story that sees a real problem in the way that crime victims experience criminal justice. But then it falls into a familiar trap in criminal justice thinking.

Liz Shepard of Gannett’s Times Herald in Port Huron, Michigan, wrote about a horrifying crime in which a teen, just before her 18th birthday, arranged for a violent attack on her adoptive parents. Her father died and mother was wounded. Tia Skinner and the two assailants were sentenced to life without parole in 2011.

Mara McCalmon describes to Shepard the trauma of going through that trial and sentencing, only to endure two resentencings of her daughter. Thanks to changes in the law governing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Michigan prosecutors twice put McCalmon back in court to describe her ordeal. At the third sentencing, Skinner’s defense team made the family feel under attack as it pursued claims of a troubled childhood, which might mitigate against the most severe sentence.

Quoting the defense lawyer as saying such experiences for victims are a necessary “reality,” the story barely explains the factors considered in sentencing or the reasons for the constitutional and statutory changes that called a juvenile LWOP sentence into question. The story’s primary message: silly legal technicalities that stood in the way of a speedy resolution only served to harm the victims without changing the outcome. If only we figured out, the story seems to conclude, how to make the system a little more punitive, we’d finally do right by victims.

This is the standard approach by American criminal justice, to assume our only societal obligation to the victims is to punish wrongdoing as severely and efficiently as possible. But what stares us in the face in this story is how inadequately that serves these victims. McCalmon, who graciously concedes that important questions were at stake in the resentencings, practically begs for alternatives that would not stick her and her family in the middle of win-at-all-costs adversarial system. She tells Shepard:

Victims never get over these life changing events, however we strive to carry on. And so while we begin and work through this process, with the help and support of our faith, family and friends, rulings that open wounds really re-victimize victims in so many ways.

The rulings are the central problem only if we see victims as tools to be used in achieving “justice” (defined strictly as punishment) and then left to sort out their problems on their own. All too often, victims like McCalmon never hear of methods proven to ease this sort of pain. In restorative justice programs, dialogue and group conferencing take words like McCalmon’s and then dig deeper, to discover what victims truly need that isn’t satisfied by the ultimate sanctions against an offender. Maybe it’s a bridge between the family and the defense team, so that sentencing can proceed without causing so much damage. Maybe it’s face-to-face meetings, after intensive preparation, between the family and the offenders so that the family can say what it needs to say, ask what it needs to know, outside of the harsh glare of a staged conflict in court. Restorative justice doesn’t preclude punishment, but it doesn’t define justice for victims as beginning and ending there.

The first step, though, is listening — really listening — to what victims tell us.

On the road again

As I approach my 12th month of reporting and writing under a Soros Justice Fellowship, after multiple trips out of state and to New York City to tell stories far from my home in New York’s Finger Lakes region, today I will hop in the car and drive under an hour to begin interviews on my last story.

By happy coincidence, I live near the site of a notable experiment in criminal justice that I will reexamine for the final story in my series for Slate on crime victims. Without giving too much away, I can share the topic and the question that I intend to address.

In the earlier installments of the series, a recurring sub-theme is restorative justice. As I point out gaps in our traditional criminal justice system in what we know about victims and what they need from us, reformers frequently point to restorative justice as the antidote. I’ve written before about victim-offender dialogue, a standard restorative method, and the related topic of forgiveness. But I haven’t taken a look at the movement in America as a whole and assessed its capacity to lead needed reforms in victim services and prisons, nor have I seen it done by other journalists in any comprehensive way.

As we journalists like to say, that’s the topic. What’s the story? That is, what narrative will I use to color in that topic? More on that later, as I near the start (finally!) of the series. But, as I dance past that question, I will say there is no substitute for face-to-face interviews when writing narratives. During the past year, I’ve been reading books and articles, gathering string on this last story. I’ve talked to many people by phone, and have many more phone interviews to go. But I’m excited to begin meeting with people whose experiences I hope will provide the characters, scenes, and plot to make the topic interesting to readers.

There’s no schedule yet for when the series will start, but my editor and I hope to have most of the pieces whipped into final shape by a little over a month from now, probably coinciding with when I finish drafting this final installment.  Once the entire series has appeared, that won’t end my work in telling stories to advance our understanding of crime victims. In my research and reporting, I’ve turned up several other stories that I hope to pursue once I complete the work for my fellowship year.

First things first. Time to hit the (unfortunately snow-covered) road.

Seeking answers close to home

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.46.54 AMSeattle Weekly has just published this long, powerful story by Nina Shapiro that addresses a question at the heart of my work: what stake victims have in the debate over reforms in sentencing and prisons. And she takes on the toughest, most complex kind of case, one in which a violent crime poses questions about punishment, victims’ prerogatives, and emotions on the spectrum from vengeance to forgiveness.

Shapiro’s story starts with Alison Holcomb, the ACLU of Washington activist put in charge of a national ACLU campaign to attack mass incarceration. (Disclosure: the funding for that campaign comes from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which also funds the Soros Justice Fellowship program that supports my work for a year.) Holcomb and other experts explain why it’s possible to simultaneously support criminal-justice reform and crime victims’ interests. If that’s all that the story accomplished, it would be significant, as I have found few stories that deal so directly with these questions and debunk assumptions that justice for victims starts and ends with the harshest possible punishment for those who harmed them.

But the narrative quickly turns to an even more compelling and unsettling story when Holcomb’s husband, Gregg, agrees to talk to Shapiro about his father’s murder in a 1993 robbery. He opens up about the differences of opinion in his family over the killer’s parole chances and about his own mixed feelings, of letting go of hate while at the same time feeling guilty about that and fantasizing about hurting the killer’s family in the same way his family was hurt. Shapiro delicately renders a human and compelling portrait, illuminating the real issues that victims wrestle with as they seek answers about their loved one’s last moments. She does a fine job of explaining the competing concepts of traditional criminal justice and alternatives like restorative justice. Best of all, she paints in shades of gray.

One more thing: The story features an interview with Oscar Rubi, the man serving 25 years to life for killing Gregg Holcomb’s father. He was 17 at the time of the crime and is now eligible for parole. If that’s all that you think you need to know about Rubi and Holcomb to make value judgments about them, then read the story and listen.

More than just an anecdote

Punishment is so central to our criminal-justice system, so ingrained in us as a culture, that we rarely stop to question why it serves as the only justice offered to crime victims — and what else they need that they don’t get from the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of the person who hurt them. That’s the idea at the heart of the series of stories I’m producing in my Soros Justice Fellowship. And it’s the underlying message of this story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday by Marisa Gerber.

Gerber describes a dramatic courtroom scene. A judge is sentencing Gilbert Trejo to prison for the rape of Jane Piper. The victim, who wanted to be identified and to tell her story, took advantage of her right to speak at the sentencing by confronting Trejo — not with unbridled rage (though who could blame her?) but with her pain and unanswered questions. Why had he chosen her? How much does he think about her  now? She doesn’t get satisfactory answers. But, by speaking, and by deciding to forgive Trejo as a way of escaping the grip that the crime held on her, Piper feels a sense of relief.

It’s a moving tribute to a brave woman. Like much of journalism, it’s an anecdote. Here’s what the story leaves out: this isn’t just Jane Piper’s reaction to her trauma from crime. It’s a reality for many victims, and explained extensively in research on trauma and restorative justice. In fact, the majority of states provide some opportunity to victims to talk to the people who harmed them, or who killed their loved one, in order to find the healing that eludes us when all that’s offered is retribution.

Such restorative-justice dialogue must be conducted under much more structured settings than simply allowing a victim her moment at the microphone. For the answers that Piper seeks, Gilbert Trejo’s full participation in the conversation — after extensive preparation, and only with his candid admission of guilt and remorse — would be needed. Done the right way, the process (which I’ve written about at length in the past and in my upcoming series) provides a proven method of victim support that no lengthy prison sentence can (which isn’t to say that prison is unnecessary; just that it’s not addressing the victim’s needs).

If more jurisdictions actively promoted restorative practices like this, then more victims would know to ask for it — if not during the stress of a criminal prosecution, then afterward, when the questions and fears don’t magically disappear. If it were commonplace, then our focus truly would be on what victims deserve from us. And stories like Gerber’s about Piper would be understandable as more than just a curious and emotional moment in two strangers’ lives.

Victim Mentality: a series’ working thesis

The Soros Justice Fellowship I’ve been awarded will pay me to work full time for 12 months on a series of stories for Slate, which I hope then to build on in book form. I promised when it was announced to explain more about my focus.

Under the working title “Victim Mentality: Crime, punishment, and healing,” I will report and write narrative stories on characters who illustrate the ways in which we can improve how we understand and help victims of serious crimes. We’re at an important moment in the making of criminal-justice policy. The pendulum has begun to swing back from the extreme end of the punishment spectrum, where tough-on-crime politics and public opinion had pushed it over the past four decades. That roughly coincided with big improvements in our approach to victim services. Services now are better, but that doesn’t make them ideal, or even adequate, in all the important ways. More troubling, the mentality that we must lock up all threats forever — banking on unprecedented levels of imprisonment as a form of justice for victims — has crowded out other forms of help that victims need and want. It has made us believe that concern for victims overlaps completely with our instinct to punish and incapacitate criminals.

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?

I started exploring this topic while working on God’s Nobodies, and the Oprah magazine story that preceded it. In that case, the homicide victim, perpetrator, and survivors were all of one family. How that family addressed questions of cause, blame, and forgiveness led me into studies on trauma and restorative justice, and discussions with researchers and practitioners in those fields. That, in turn, led me to write about counter-intuitive approaches in which victims begin to heal by meeting face to face with those who harmed them or their loved ones. I followed that with a story on research showing how, under particular circumstances, survivors can turn trauma into a positive, new course in their lives. In all of this reporting over the past six years, I’ve been struck by the disconnect between the experiences of real victims, on the one hand, and the assumptions that the rest of us and our politicians make about the victim experience. The only way to move beyond such abstractions is to find people and programs that make us rethink those assumptions and that are supported by evidence much deeper than one journalist’s anecdotes.

Since learning that I won the fellowship and that it would start this month, I have been doing the background research I’ll need to be sure the examples I’ve chosen are rooted in the latest evidence in criminology; reading the enormous mound of research I’ve gathered over the years; talking to experts in the field and who research these areas; and lining up my reporting trips. In some ways, these early steps retrace the work I did in preparing my project proposal. Now, however, I know I’m not working on spec — the project is real. In crude but realistic terms, I know I’ll be paid for the work, which frees me to dig more deeply. For a freelancer, that last part is key: We don’t eat and pay the mortgage unless we have a publisher willing to buy what we write. So the reporting that goes into a proposal is, by necessity, just enough to get a green light to move forward. Now I have it.

In the coming months, I’ll share insights into what I’m reporting on, follow up on stories after they’re published, and continue to use this blog and my social-media feeds to shine a light on stories that explain sentencing reform and the victim experience. I hope you’ll follow this unfolding story and contribute to the discussion.

Victims and the death penalty

Careful readers of this blog — I know you’re out there; I can sense it — might notice I don’t post much about two of the most critical issues in criminal justice: wrongful convictions and the death penalty. If a compelling narrative comes along on one or both topics, I will enthusiastically weigh in. But, given my druthers, the policy questions that intrigue me most are less heavily covered by journalists and more prone to myths, misunderstandings, or neglect: namely, how we treat victims of violent crime and how those victims, and their survivors, respond to their unenviable experiences.

That’s the lens I used to view the just-completed military trial of the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan. The facts take my breath away: the cruelty and calculation of Hasan, motivated by politics and religious hatred, to shoot dozens of fellow soldiers; the execution-style precision he brought to his chosen task; the heartbreaking and brave responses of the victims, survivors, and protectors.

Even though Hasan did nothing to prevent his conviction and death sentence, declining the help of a criminal defense team and putting on no evidence or argument, the trial served an important purpose in bringing the victims’ stories out in harrowing detail. And then it did something more: It called into question what weight our courts (civilian or military) ought to give to the preference of victims and survivors regarding a fitting punishment; and whether those victims and survivors receive needed comfort from a verdict mandating the ultimate punishment.

The Fort Hood victims remain divided on those questions (this AP story quotes a few to that effect; I hope one or more journalists eventually tell the story in full). Some want to deny Hasan his martyrdom, or might want him to serve decades in prison. Others believe he richly deserves execution. They all deserve a say in the matter, but neither the system nor common sense can give them the final word on it. So what are we to make of it?

In research I’m reviewing now for some upcoming reporting projects, I’m reminded how flawed our assumptions can be when imagining what crime victims feel. Wouldn’t victims want the people who harmed them to suffer the harshest possible punishment? And wouldn’t that outcome give those victims the all-important closure we imagine them craving? Of course, except when that’s not what they want or need, or it is what they want and need at first but then realize it’s not. The messy realities, while rarely quantified in the scholarly literature, begin to come into focus in the work of researchers Marilyn Armour of the University of Texas and Mark Umbreit of the University of Minnesota. In a pair of papers (2007 and 2012-PDF), and in a Marquette University Law School symposium last year, they show that the conventional wisdom about victims’ wants and needs concerning the ultimate penalty — death or life without parole — fails to predict how real victims will often respond.

Their research, rooted in the restorative justice field, is at once intriguing and confounding. If it’s impossible to generalize, what can we do to serve victims? At a minimum, I suppose, it reminds us to ask questions before relying on assumptions. Just because we can imagine ourselves demanding the ultimate penalty, as one of Hasan’s victims or the victims’ loved ones, doesn’t mean they all will. And just because our courts might arrive at that result doesn’t mean we’ve met our obligation to those victims.