Monday, January 7, 2013

Restorative justice in a murder case

Conor McBride
(Photo by Ryan Pfluger/NYTimes)
There is an amazing story about restorative justice in a Florida murder case by Paul Tullis over at the NY Times. Read it. All of it. It's long but worthwhile:

(See also an interview w/ the family on USA Today: Parents who forgave their daughter's killer: It 'frees us')

This story was all over my peacebuilding friends' Facebook timelines this morning because of the involvement of Sujatha Baliga, a restorative justice practitioner and advocate based in California, who has some connections to EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and my RJ mentor there, Howard Zehr.

The title of the article is somewhat of a misnomer to RJ practitioners, who are always quick to point out that restorative justice does not necessarily entail the practice of forgiveness. A better title for the RJ practitioner would have replaced "forgiveness" with "restorative justice." Even still, forgiveness - including Christian forgiveness on the part of the victim's parents - does play a crucial role in this story, so let me point out a few things I noticed about that, as well as some non-theological observations about this case.

Forgiveness that has shape

As a particularist, I always feel like somewhat of a nag when pointing out - even to my RJ friends -  that weighty words like "forgiveness" are not self-evident. They are words awaiting content, and different traditions will inform the content for such words differently. The storied traditions into which we live bring us to the point where we can understand, much less practice, things like forgiveness. True, there is often overlap in understanding and practice from tradition to tradition, as no tradition is hermetically sealed off from another. (See Sujatha's experience with the Dalai Lama in the article.) But the Grosmaire family whose daughter was murdered understood forgiveness in a particularly Christian way. They are, as the article points out...
parents (who) strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their (Roman Catholic) creed. “I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,” Andy recalls. “And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: ‘I will. I will.’ ” Jesus or no Jesus, he says, “what father can say no to his daughter?”
There are two things going on in that quote. First, there is an imitative quality to the Grosmaire's Christian discipleship, modeling their lives on the lives of Jesus and Augustine. Second, encountering Jesus Christ in their dying daughter is what compelled the Grosmaire's toward forgiving their daughter's murderer, "refusing to become (his) enemy." The two are not unrelated or incidental, but crucially inseparable. Their training into the Christian life through the Roman Catholic tradition conditioned their life together to be ready to respond as they did in that horrible moment of tragedy.

Their stance of forgiveness extended to the murderer's family as well. And their forgiveness had concrete legal implications, as they were able to influence the sentencing process early on. All of this isn't the trite "forgive and forget" garbage that we often see attributed to forgiveness. This is heavy stuff; no forgetting - “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.” But forgiveness had a healing quality to their grieving process, allowing them to not be "stuck" in anger and enemy-making.

Prophesying to the system

As I've previously written, the modern restorative justice movement in North America has been from the start an embodied critique of criminal justice systems in Western societies. My argument has also been that the involvement of Mennonites in the early movement gave it a certain quality that is connected with the Anabaptist tradition, including its understanding and practice of forgiveness.  While RJ has spread beyond its roots within the criminal justice system and found resonance with many non-Christian traditions, there are still cases such as this one that display its continuing power to model another way of doing justice within the established system.

This particular case has some interesting qualities from a systemic view. Notice it is the well-placed prosecutor who wielded the power to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences. If left to the system's own devices, Conor McBride would have served life in prison or been executed, regardless of the Grosmaire family's wishes. It took a person with authority like the prosecutor to make a greatly reduced sentence possible, much less attainable.

It also took some creative analysis on the part of multiple parties to find a place in the process in which to insert the restorative justice circle, which influenced the prosecutor to seek a reduced prison sentence. The restorative justice circle is what allowed the McBride and the Grosmaire families to come together to hear each other's stories of the horrible act and its aftermath. Both sets of parents got to embrace the young man who inexplicably murdered his girlfriend in a fit of blind rage. This kind of thing does not happen in a court room. As Baliga states:
We got to look more deeply at the root of where this behavior came from than we would have had it gone a trial route — the anger issues in the family, exploring the drama in their relationship, the whole conglomeration of factors that led to that moment. There’s no explaining what happened, but there was just a much more nuanced conversation about it, which can give everyone more confidence that Conor will never do this again. And the Grosmaires got answers to questions that would have been difficult to impossible to get in a trial.
As our criminal justice system continues to show signs of crumbling under the unintended consequences of drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and exploding prison populations, it's promising to see stories such as this one emerge from the restorative justice movement and into mainstream media. It's my hope that initiatives such as sentencing reform can take cues from RJ to help craft a more humane and community-oriented system in the crumbling shell of the old transactional, process-oriented system.

As for Christians, I hope stories such as this can help capture their imagination to challenge weak understandings and practices of Christian forgiveness that are all too common in the church, and help "reform" forgiveness to be more faithful and therefore more transformative. As Greg Jones reminds us in his masterful book, Forgiveness: A Theological Account, “(t)he Body of Christ is forged through the dynamic interrelations of repentance and forgiveness.” Failure to account for those dynamic interrelations leads to weak practices which lead to a weak body. May there be health in the Christian body through the transforming of our minds (and the rest of our bodies!) in Christ. Amen.

[Update: This post was picked up by Political Theology's blog - Prophetic Politics: Forgiveness and Restorative Justice]

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