The restorative power of forgiveness
John Schwenkler January 6, 2013 - 10:58am
A powerful story in this morning's New York Times Magazine illustrates the value of restorative justice, where the focus of the criminal justice system is put on the victims of crime and the community harmed by it. A young man killed his girlfriend of several years after an extensive dispute, and her parents chose to forgive him:
Andy Grosmaire, Anns father, stood beside his daughters bed in the intensive-care unit of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The room was silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator keeping her alive. Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy that unless God did wondrous things, Ann would not survive her injuries. Anns mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, just listening, he says, for that first word that may come out.Anns face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, Forgive him. His response was immediate. No, he said out loud. No way. Its impossible. But Andy kept hearing his daughters voice: Forgive him. Forgive him....Four days later, Anns condition had not improved, and her parents decided to remove her from life support. Andy says he was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand. (Ann had instinctually reached to block the gunshot, and lost fingers.) Anns parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ, Andy recalls. And I hadnt said no to him before, and I wasnt 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?When Conor was booked, he was told to give the names of five people who would be permitted to visit him in jail, and he put Anns mother Kate on the list. Conor says he doesnt know why he did so I was in a state of shock but knowing she could visit put a burden on Kate. At first she didnt want to see him at all, but that feeling turned to willingness and then to a need. Before this happened, I loved Conor, she says. I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment as a murderer I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.She asked her husband if he had a message for Conor. Tell him I love him, and I forgive him, he answered. Kate told me: I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.
As part of this release, the Grosmaires met with Conor and his parents and negotiated a reduced prison sentence of 20 years, plus ten years of probation -- no small feat in the "tough on crime" Florida panhandle. Here is what the USCCB says in recommending restorative justice in a document published in 2000:
Restorative justice focuses first on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model. This shift in focus affirms the hurt and loss of the victim, as well as the harm and fear of the community, and insists that offenders come to grips with the consequences of their actions. These approaches are not "soft on crime" because they specifically call the offender to face victims and the communities. This experience offers victims a much greater sense of peace and accountability. Offenders who are willing to face the human consequences of their actions are more ready to accept responsibility, make reparations, and rebuild their lives.
In this case, that is exactly what happened:
... their forgiveness affected Conor, too, and not only in the obvious way of reducing his sentence. With the Grosmaires forgiveness, he told me, I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned. Forgiveness doesnt make him any less guilty, and it doesnt absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conors enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge of feeling abandoned and hated and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands. I spoke to Conor for six hours over three days, in a prison administrators office at the Liberty Correctional Institution near Tallahassee. At one point he sat with his hands and fingers open in front of him, as if he were holding something. Eyes cast downward, he said, There are moments when you realize: I am in prison. I am in prison because I killed someone. I am in prison because I killed the girl I loved.
About the Author
I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.