Tag Archives: forgiveness

A red state struggles with reform

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-42-22-pmWhat constitutes real criminal-justice reform?

Advocates have warned for years that it’s a mistake to limit sentencing reforms to nonviolent drug offenses. Marie Gottschalk explores this in depth in a penetrating critique of the reform movement in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, where she talks about the policies aimed only at “non, non, nons” (nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses).

In fact, dividing the criminal world into violent and nonviolent is a “demonstrably false” construct to begin with, as Katherine Beckett argued in this recent American Prospect article, in part because drug offenders often have committed violence, while violent offenders are among the least likely to commit new offenses.

And yet public opinion favors reducing our over-reliance on prisons — but not for the majority of prisoners who are serving long sentences for violence and other serious offenses. Perhaps that’s because the public believes, against all evidence, that crime remains in a perpetual upward spiral (actually, and despite alarming spikes in some cities’ violent crime recently, crime of all types has fallen dramatically for the past 20-plus years).

In my latest article, written for TakePart, I look at the ups and downs of criminal-justice reform in a deep-red state, Oklahoma, and ask whether its efforts are doomed to irrelevance. The state can barely make progress toward the most minimal drug-offense reforms, much less toward reforms that might put a bigger dent in a system that practically everyone involved agrees is unaffordable, ineffective, and overly punitive.

The story is about more than just Oklahoma. It’s a look at justice reinvestment, a nonpartisan approach to reducing mass incarceration through policies aimed at achieving lower crime and lower imprisonment. Researchers in dozens of states have found savings in reducing the use of prisons, and advised plowing those savings into crime prevention programs. Conservatives from groups like Right on Crime support such efforts. For some on the left, that’s enough reason to oppose it, or at least look at it very skeptically. But, like many other red states that have gone before it, Oklahoma is trying to take these baby steps before making bolder moves. The question is whether success, as they define it, will be enough.

The timing of this assessment of Oklahoma’s fitful progress coincidentally comes as Congress admits it is too divided to take up the modest reforms — focused mainly on nonviolent drug offenses — that it has wrestled with, and watered down in efforts at compromise, for the past couple of years.

My story appears in a package of stories on criminal justice titled “Violence and Redemption,” with stories on rehabilitation programs for people who committed violent offenses (by Rebecca McCray), forgiveness and victim-offender dialog (by Jessica Pishko), and several others as part of TakePart’s “Big Issues” series, an ambitious project using longform journalism to explore … yes, big issues. This was my second story for TakePart, which is part of the documentary and film production company Participant Media. Last December I wrote about police reform, with a look at what’s happening in Minneapolis. I appreciate this publication’s dedication to telling in-depth stories about criminal justice, as part of its larger agenda promoting social awareness. What my editors and I liked about both stories is that they defied easy answers. They are, instead, about the struggle to address crime in constructive ways — and in ways that move beyond the broken systems of the past.

A death in prison

Marion Berry 4-29-14
Marion Berry in a 2014 prison photo

I got word this week that Marion “Marvin” Berry has died in prison at age 44. Berry was incarcerated for 29 years and five months, since the age of 15, when he and another 15-year-old, Gary Brown, were arrested on charges of kidnapping, raping, and killing 26-year-old Cathy O’Daniel.

I wrote about the case in the first installment of my series for Slate on crime victims. In that story, I focused on O’Daniel’s mother Linda White and her brand of radical forgiveness, which she has shown toward Berry’s co-defendant, Gary Brown.

Berry never experienced the kind of turnaround and redemption that Brown earned for himself. Instead, his years in Texas prisons were marked by trouble. Just five years into his 55-year sentence, he got another 12 1/2 years tacked on for possession of a homemade knife. After more fights with other prisoners and guards, and incidents of self-mutilation, Berry’s minimum sentence stood at 64 years. If all went well — and, with Berry, it never did — he was due to be released in 2051.

A Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, confirmed to me in an email today that Berry died at the Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo, a prison that houses prisoners in solitary confinement or requiring mental health care. Clark wrote:

On March 27, 2016, Berry was found unresponsive in his cell. Staff began life saving measures as he was taken to unit medical. EMS arrived on scene and unit medical briefed them on the situation. A physician later arrived and pronounced the offender deceased at 8:37 pm. The preliminary cause of death was natural causes.

White was the first to let me know of Berry’s death, when I coincidentally reached out to say hi and to ask if she’s heard lately from Brown. Texas’ victim-notification policies had served their purpose, and she received a letter promptly giving her the news. Speaking of Berry, White wrote in an email, “His was a very sad life, to say the least.”

As for Brown, he has remained out of touch with White, which was how I ended the story when it was published last June. When I arranged a meeting between White and Brown, and for months afterward, Brown was doing all he could to fulfill his promise to White to live a law-abiding, productive life after his release from prison. I expect and hope that is still the case. No matter what, he’s done far more than his partner in crime to turn bad into good and to show that some lives can be redeemed.

For the rest of my series, go here.

Crime victims series recap: what besides retribution?

Whenever people confront a complex social problem, gut reactions might feel good and right, but they rarely provide true or long-lasting solutions. Few problems are as complex as crime. And so, when we think about crime victims, especially about victims of violence, our first reactions get it wrong so consistently that it’s remarkable we ever get anything about it right.

In the stories that I’ve told at Slate after a year’s work under a Soros Justice Media Fellowhip, I have tried to show that victims are not simply defined by their wound, nor can that wound be healed by lashing out blindly at those who harmed them — or encouraging them to find their only solace in such anger and simple retribution. These are natural emotions. Most of us have them, and no one should ever judge victims for grasping at punishment of their offender as their medicine. But we owe it to victims to understand them and their experience much more deeply than we do when we shed a tear, rage at the “senseless” crime that befell them, and then move on, secure in the belief that punishment is the primary response needed. And we must offer victims more options than just indulging their first reactions.

Though I have admitted doubts that my stories might change hearts and minds about the range of victims’ true experiences, I hope they did.  I plan to continue reporting on these topics. Please keep watching this blog and my social media feeds for updates on my work. Thanks for reading. And thanks to the hundreds of victims and experts whose time and writings informed my work; to Slate and my talented editor John Swansburg for helping me sharpen the telling of these stories and for giving them great exposure; and to my friends, colleagues, and benefactors at the Open Society Foundations for supporting criminal-justice journalism through the Soros Justice Fellowships.

Here are the highlights:

Archive of blog posts on the series in progress, outtakes from the stories, and summaries of the stories as they appeared.

The stories:

Part One: Linda White’s example of extreme forgiveness as the antidote to victim anger

Part Two: Bridges to Life and the victims who enter the belly of the beast to counsel prisoners

Part Three: Bill Otis, tough-on-crime’s last man standing, and the arguments that motivate federal criminal justice policy

Part Four: Susan Herman’s mission to change NYPD culture and serve victims from One Police Plaza

Part Five: Los Angeles’ dedicated cadre of victims who respond to crime by seeking to save others from it

Part Six: The promise and peril of restorative justice as an alternative to America’s punitive system

“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.’

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 most common anomaly

In his Sunday column in tomorrow’s New York Times, Nick Kristof tells the story of Ian Manuel and Debbie Baigrie. At age 13, Manuel shot Baigrie in the face in a botched robbery. Now 37, he has been in prison 24 years and has another 13 to go — which marks a reduction from his original sentence of life without parole. Baigrie went to bat for Manuel, unsuccessfully pleading for mercy at his resentencing. The two maintain what Kristof calls a “most unusual” and “incredible” relationship.

It is, indeed, a powerful story, especially with Kristof’s effort to show how Manuel’s upbringing put him on a path to commit such a horrible, impulsively cruel crime, and how his race doomed him to Florida’s ultra-harsh sentencing.

But this is hardly the anomaly that Kristof makes it out to be. Since 2008, when I started reporting on a case that I ultimately turned into the Kindle Single God’s Nobodies, I have collected stories like this, in which a victim — initially angry and vengeful — ultimately turns to forgiveness, or at least empathy. I’ve lost count of such stories, which often feature similarly context-free claims of novelty when a victim and her assailant reconcile.

This isn’t just because we have short attention spans. It’s also because we impose our own assumptions on how victims should act, rather than listen to them. And because we’re ordinarily bombarded with stories of victims seeking the ultimate punishment, complaining when courts disappoint them, calling for new laws and tougher penalties, all in hopes of punishing our way out of the hurt. There’s no denying these victims exist. But the other types get far less attention.

So it’s a good thing for Kristof, with his visibility, to describe Baigrie’s journey and her reasons for reconciling with Manuel. In my upcoming series on crime victims, I intend to start with an even more “incredible” and “unusual” tale, of a young man who committed a far worse crime at age 15, served nearly 24 years in prison (coincidentally, what Manuel has served so far), and who has been out of prison for more than four years living a productive life — with a “most unusual” advocate by his side, one who seeks to hold her daughter’s murderer accountable in ways that more years in prison would have failed to accomplish.

Beautiful on the inside

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 11.12.12 AMImagine the public outrage if the punishment were five years’ probation for a man who shoots his ex-wife in the face with a shotgun while she breastfeeds their child, blinding her and causing a lifetime of health challenges and disfiguration. Even though he claims it was an accident, our instincts for punishment and revenge kick in. We want him to pay much more dearly.

When this happened to Michelle Fox, she focused instead on her recovery and on adopting a new outlook on life. She allowed her ex-husband to keep a role in their child’s life. And she forgave him. Syracuse Post-Standard crime reporter Julie McMahon tells Fox’s story beautifully in words and an audio slideshow (below). I’m proud to say Julie is a former student of mine at the Newhouse School. I’m even prouder to say that I didn’t have to teach her to have the empathy in storytelling that can change hearts and minds about how, before we impose our own solutions on victims, we pay attention to what they want and need.

A man-to-man talk

One of my favorite moments each year, when I was on a team teaching reporting to grad students at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, was the guest lecture by a local columnist, Sean Kirst. In his gravelly honk of a voice, Kirst played the tough guy. But his message, like his masterful reporting and writing, always showed him to be much deeper and more sensitive guy than he lets on.

I’m glad to see he’s still on message. Kirst’s newspaper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, taped a talk he gave this morning at a breakfast promoting a campaign against domestic violence. The theme is pure Kirst — a blunt, blue-collar man telling it straight to his brethren, about how they can break the cycle of violence by showing their sons how real men treat the women they love. Here’s a link to the 2011 column he wrote about baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, which he refers to in his talk, and a recent column on the topic of his talk today.

I’ll let Kirst take it from here.

Three tales about blame and forgiveness


Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 11.10.29 AMThanks to a former student’s tweet, I discovered this absolutely fascinating and illuminating RadioLab trio of stories on blame: all stories, in the host’s words, that “make you judge how you judge” others and “ask what blame does for us — why do we need it, when isn’t it enough, and what happens when we try to push past it with forgiveness and mercy?” They concentrate on criminal justice (which is why you’re reading about that here) from three angles:

  • The story of Kevin, whose brain-surgery treatment for epileptic seizures triggers awful obsessions with child pornography that land him in prison and test his marriage. The story intelligently and evenhandedly examines the medically based argument on his behalf that he shouldn’t be held fully responsible because of his brain malfunction and the prosecution’s counterargument that his loss of neurological control was too selective to be genuine. Kevin does not demand absolution, just understanding.
  • That leads to the middle segment, a battle of experts led by the master of simplified (but not simplistic) explanation of science and big ideas, Robert Krulwich. His three-way conversation with Duke neurolaw expert Nita Farahanay and neuroscientist David Eagleman ultimately questions why personal blameworthiness matters so much in law if we’re ultimately just creatures of brain wiring that can go haywire. Like the first story, this one explains and questions while leaving the ultimate answers (if they exist) to the listener. 
  • The final and most moving of the three stories, by reporter Bianca Giaever, features an elderly man, Hector Black, whose daughter is raped and murdered by a crackhead burglar, Ivan Simpson. We accompany Black as he moves from fury (“At first, I yelled out ‘Kill the bastard'”) to turning away from hate to, finally, forgiveness — even, to his own discomfort and wonderment, a friendship with Simpson. Black calls their bond “absolutely crazy” — “People don’t do that” — and comes to life in the story through the letters Black exchanges with Simpson, who’s serving life without parole. The relationship reaches its most wrenching moments in the exchange the two men have well into their time together, when Black asks for the details of his daughter’s final hours. Motivated to move away from revenge at first by his need to find peace, Black discovers that human understanding and love can coexist with holding offenders accountable.

No matter your assumptions and beliefs, this package of stories presents a profound set of questions about morality, law, crime, and blame.

A survivor weighs in

In the school shooting last month in Colorado, the local sheriff famously decreed that he would not mention the name of the killer, Karl Pierson. The no-naming trend that I blogged about here found new momentum.

Here, Slate summarizes what happened at Wednesday’s memorial service for the student who died of her injuries, Claire Davis. Her father, Michael Davis, pointedly referred to Pierson by name and said that he and his wife forgive Pierson because “he didn’t know what he was doing.” Read and watch his comments in full. And then say a silent thank-you to Davis for this poignant and noble reminder of a point that often gets lost in our responses to violence and attitudes toward criminals and victims.

We can’t assume that any particular approach is the one best suited to honoring and healing victims. Sometimes, victims and their survivors will demonstrate forgiveness and empathy — because that is what they need for themselves. It’s only surprising to the rest of us if we haven’t paid attention to the varied ways that survivors and victims cope with trauma.