Lisa Rea interviews Stephen Watt
Nov 05, 2009
By Lisa Rea:
The following interview is with Stephen Watt, a former Wyoming state trooper and two term state legislator who was shot multiple times by a fleeing bank robber. Lisa Rea's interview focuses on how the impact of a severely violent crime continues 20 years later. Mr. Watt has met with the offender, forgiven him and a friendly relationship has grown up between them. Nevertheless, he continues to suffer. Can restorative justice open doors for further healing in a victim of violent crime who is suffering continuing, severe trauma?
Q. Stephen, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.
Can you tell us briefly about the crime committed against you? What kind of
injuries did you sustain?
SW: On March 18, 1982 while serving as a Wyoming State Trooper I was searching for a bank robber when I stopped a car to ask the driver if he had seen the certain kind of car that I was looking for. Unknown to me it was the bank robber that I was stopping.
|Michelle Renee and Cheryl Ward-Kaiser listen to Stephen Watt at a forum on restorative justice held at Fresno Pacific University's Centre for Conflict Studies & Peacemaking, (circa) 2007|
As soon as I turned on my overhead lights the bank robber slammed on his brakes and jumped out of his car and fired two bullets into the windshield of my car. The first bullet came through the windshield, through my sunglasses and hit me in the left eye. This bullet went to the back of my eye socket, broke out the back of the eye socket and stopped the thickness of a piece of paper from entering my brain.
I threw myself onto my right side to get below the dashboard and out of the line of fire when the bank robber ran back to my car, leaned in the door and shot me four times in the left lower back. One of the bullets went through me and hit me in the liver. This bullet missed a major blood vessel by a quarter of an inch. If this bullet would have hit that blood vessel I would have died within minutes from internal bleeding. Another bullet hit me in the spine stopping a sixteenth of an inch from my spinal cord. The last two bullets after bouncing around inside me ended in my left hip.
Considering where I was hit, I should have died, suffered brain damage or at the very least been paralyzed. As it is I lost my left eye and have no feeling in my legs from the knees down.
Q. Since the shooting what kind of problems have you experienced? How has it changed your life?
SW: With age the problems that I am having from being shot seem to have taken on a snowball effect. Ever since I was shot I have had a lot of pain, daily pain. Now I just don't have the energy to do too much.
Because of having no feeling in my lower legs I have gotten ulcers on the bottom of my right foot and gotten bone infections that have resulted in having bones taken out of my foot. Now the structure of my foot has been compromised to the point that I have to wear a special boot and use crutches and a wheel chair. I've also had so many infections in my foot that I have developed diabetes.
I really don't know how to answer the question, "How has it changed your life?" mostly because I don't know how my life would have turned out if I hadn't been shot. The plan that I had for my life was to serve twenty five years as a state trooper and then retire and become a sheriff in my home county for as long as I could get elected. I can say that everything I had planned didn't happen.
Q. Would you go in some detail about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Do you feel that in some way your needs as a crime victim have been ignored? If so, why do you think that is?
SW: Well, I think that first I would like to start with a definition for post traumatic stress. The definition I like is, "Normal reactions to abnormal situations". Then the disorder part is the negative effects that the abnormal situation has on one’s mental and physical health or functions. I know that this is a very simple way of looking at it but let's face it I am a pretty simple person.
I have post traumatic stress disorder. From the moment I first woke up from surgery I woke up from nightmares of being shot. I would wake up screaming that I had been shot. I have had this nightmare ever since (the shooting).
Sometimes I will have it every night for months and then I might go for months without having this nightmare but I will have other violent nightmares. I will also have some periods of time without having any violent nightmares.
Another thing I experience is flashbacks. Sights, sounds, and smells
trigger the flashbacks for me. I have two kinds of flashbacks. One flashback I
call the slide show which is individual pictures of my shooting that
flash into my mind. Sometimes that one picture will flash just once
and other times it will flash over and over. Then at other times I
will have a series of pictures flash through my mind with a blank
pause between the pictures. Then there is the movie which will be the
whole shooting flashing through my mind just like the movies.
I've also had times of just blank spots in my life. I have no idea where I have been or what I have done.
Q. What kind of assistance would you like to receive as a victim of crime?
SW: The thing that I think that is most important for victims of crime is that any assistance that is offered should be friendly to the victim. Any help that I have gotten, or asked for, I had to jump through hoops to get. I've had to fill out all sorts of paper work and answer all sorts of questions, questions that were worded in a way that made it sound like I was trying to cheat the system. Questions that made me feel like I was a criminal for even asking for help.
I think that victims of crime should be offered counseling for the rest of their lives if needed. I didn't realize that I suffered from post traumatic stress disorder until twenty years after I was shot. When I finally realized that I needed counseling it was a battle to get workman's compensation to pay for it. Then I think that the victim should be compensated for their loss. Most important I think that the offender should be the one to pay for all of the expenses that their crime has caused. I think that this is just as important as any time the offender spends in prison because the victim then feels that the offender is truly paying for their crime.
Yes, my needs as a crime victim have been ignored simply because when I was shot there were no victims' rights. There was no restorative justice and there is still no restorative justice.
Q. Following up on that comment we know you are a supporter of restorative justice. In fact, you supported the work of The Justice & Reconciliation Project (JRP) [founded by Lisa Rea] by telling your story to the public and to the media. Why do you support restorative justice? What ways could restorative justice be more fully actualized in your life now?
SW: On my own I contacted the man who shot me only to share my new Christian beliefs with him. After that initial contact we just kept communicating and over time a friendship started to grow. As I got to know him (Mark Farnham), I started to see him as a human and not the monster that shot me. As time has gone by our friendship has grown to the point that we are very good friends now. I support restorative justice because I believe that those people who commit a criminal act should have to make the victim of their crime as whole as possible in every aspect. When an offender is required to do this it makes their victim human. It also makes the offender understand the cost of the crime to their victim.
There is a story I’d like to share about Mark. One day I was visiting him in prison. He was pretty quiet and didn't have a lot to say. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that everyone in prison over time forgets their crime and victim. Some even twist facts around so they can place the blame for the crime on the victim. Mark told me that because of my forgiveness and friendship that he could never do that. Every time he talked to me or saw me he had to remember what he did to me. Because of my forgiveness (expressed to him) and friendship he now had to stop and think about how his actions would affect other people. For years now Mark has wanted to help me in any way that he can but because he is still in prison with little chance of getting out he can't help me.
Q. I understand you support Mark getting out of prison. Is that right? Why?
SW: Yes, I do I support Mark getting out of prison. For some reason this part of my story seems to make a lot of people mad at me and I can't figure this out. One thing that I think that people need to understand is that under the right circumstance and with a poor choice some of us could find ourselves in situations that could land us in prison. Maybe for a crime that we didn't intend to commit or for a crime that we just didn't realize was a crime. Or maybe we just didn't think about what the consequences would be for what we did.
I think all of us could say at some point in our life, "But for the grace of God go I." I support the man who Mark is now (to get him out of prison) and not the man who Mark was when he shot me. The man who shot me was a monster at the time he shot me. The man who I call a friend is truly a changed man who is sorry for what he has done to me. If I had allowed myself to never have gotten to know Mark in a personal way I would never have gotten to know just what kind of person he is. Over the years I have found out that we are a lot alike.
Q. How active have you been in seeking Mark’s release from prison? Has that had an impact on you and your well-being?
SW: I've written letters to the parole board and appeared at parole hearings to speak on behalf of Mark. I have done so at great cost to myself but I believe so strongly in the changes that Mark has made in himself that as a friend you provide support regardless of the cost. Every year when Mark has a hearing and I write a letter or attend his hearing I start having nightmares and flashbacks due to the stress I feel.
I get so frustrated because it seems that everyone who is involved in the parole process seems to say, "We value what you have to say as a victim of this crime as long as it keeps the man in prison." I get the feeling that because I don't hate Mark and because I support his release that the parole process feels that they must keep him in prison and punish him more because of my forgiveness.
Mark has served more time than any person who has committed murder in my home state. He has served more time than any other inmate right now. I wonder when he will have served enough time.
Q. You have been a state legislator in Wyoming and were elected for two terms. What laws do you think are needed to improve your life, as a crime victim/survivor, and hold offenders accountable?
SW: Well I guess the first thing is that we need to come up with a good definition of restorative justice and then from there craft a law that would fulfill that definition. Just what is a good definition is I really don't know.
Q. You have a very unusual story in that you have forgiven the offender. Can you explain how that happened? Did it bring you a measure of healing by forgiving him?
SW: My wife was the main factor in my forgiving Mark. After I was shot my wife became a Christian and it was through her that I also became a Christian. Even though I was a Christian I still was full of hate and bitterness towards Mark. Well, a person can only hate so much and so long before it destroys everything in life. My wife could see how it was destroying me. With her encouragement I finally forgave Mark.
Well, maybe at first it wasn't so much that I forgave him but that I didn't hate him for what he had done to me. Over time as I came to understand Christ's forgiveness for me it became clear to me that I needed to practice the same thing that Christ teaches. With my Christian faith I also came to understand Christ's friendship with the worst that society has to offer. It is because I believe this way that I allowed my friendship with Mark to start and grow.
Healing? Yes, a big measure of healing. Forgiving Mark gave me back control of my life. As long as I hated him, he was in control of my life. Once I forgave him hating him wasn't important any more. The time and energy that I used to hate him with was now mine to do other things with. People have a hard time understanding; they think that my forgiving Mark was for Mark. It wasn't, it was for me.
Q. There seems to be more of an openness at this time to consider alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system since our rate of incarceration is so high and the cost of incarceration is so expensive. Do you think this is true?
SW: I don't think that there is an openness to alternatives. First of all there isn't enough education to the general public about the cost of incarceration. To be honest I don't know if the general public really cares about what it cost to lock someone up. Second, politicians don't get elected if they seem to be anything but tough on crime and I would just bet that any politician who started talking about the cost of incarceration and alternatives to incarceration wouldn't stand a chance of getting elected. A good example of this is my own state. During my second term in the legislature I asked our prison system how many inmates we housed out of state due to overcrowding. The answer was around 550. Now the cost to house these inmates was almost double of what it would have cost the state if we had to room to keep them in our own state. I then asked the parole board how many of the 550 inmates were eligible for parole at that time. The answer was 400. Armed with this information I started talking to other legislators and members of the public and there was a complete lack of interest in this subject.
Lock them up and throw away the key seems to be the only punishment that most people know.
Q. Do you think it is time for restorative justice?
SW: Yes, I do think it is time for restorative justice because what we are doing now isn't working and hasn't worked for years.
LR: Thank you so much for being with us. Your voice is so important in the debate over crime and punishment, Stephen. I know we will hear more from you in the future.
For those who would like to contact Stephen you may email
him at firstname.lastname@example.org in
(permission to reprint: contact Lisa Rea @ email@example.com November 2009)
See also a January 2011 newspaper article for updated information about Stephen and Mark.