Restorative Justice on Death Row: healing for crime victims?
Dec 13, 2010
by Lisa Rea
A death row inmate in Florida recently died in prison before the state could execute him. I became aware of Robert's case because I met his pen pal, Ines, a woman from Switzerland who had be-friended him through a pen pal organization, Lifespark, based in that country. After being interviewed by Ines for her organization's newsletter on the subject of forgiveness and restorative justice I learned more about the man she wrote in a Florida prison who had served some 20 years on death row. The story came to an end on December 3rd, 2010 when Robert unexpectedly died of cancer. But what I learned from my encounter with Ines was the real need to open doors more fully for all victims of violent crime wherever their offenders live and wherever their victims live (if they are still alive). I learned through Ines that her pen pal, once a very violent offender, was ready to attempt to make things right, as much as possible, with the victims or victim's family members that he had injured. The rap sheet on this man was very violent and longer than I'd ever seen.
I often learn things about restorative justice and how to apply it seemingly coincidentally. When cases draw me, or more likely the people behind the cases, I have a hard time saying no.
Many encounters like this end up having an important effect on the work I do. Ines began sharing with me information about the inmate including the fact that he had committed vile acts of violence. He had raped and murdered a 12-year old girl. He had also raped numerous women, so numerous he had forgotten how many and where the sexual assaults had occurred. Ines asked me if there was a way to somehow reach the victims or the victim's families in Robert 's case. Ines explained that she had been having lengthy discussions, via letter, with Robert about his victims. She felt that he was prepared to apologize in some way and take full responsibility for his actions. I learned that his appeals on death row had been exhausted.
I attempted to advise and counsel Ines about this process warning her that it would be very tough to contact his victims. But at the same time, I thought long and hard about how it might happen. It occurred to me how important it might be to the victims or their families to have this apology, this expression of remorse. I was not suggesting victim offender dialogue, which is a face-to-face meeting, but at the same time I did not want to exclude that from happening. In the restorative justice field I had seen amazing and even miraculous things happen which I never would have predicted.
I made contacts with two colleagues in Florida who I thought might be interested in this case. I also was looking for someone to be, in essence, Robert's spiritual advisor since I was told he had become a Christian while serving time. I had no way of confirming this but did read some of his writings which were shared with me by Ines. We did not get too far in the restorative justice process, though Ines had many talks with Robert about his victims. I felt that one important step would be to have Robert compose a list of those he had injured and attempt to explain how he could take responsibility for each action. This was a process I had learned when directing the Sycamore Tree Project, an innovative in-prison restorative justice programme, for Prison Fellowship/Prison Fellowship International in 1998 used in a Texas medium security prison.
By taking steps towards accountability it helps the offender prepare for perhaps some day meeting his victim/victims or their families or at the very least expressing those feelings via letter. The question in Robert's case was would any victim of his or their families receive such communication from him? I thought it would be unlikely. But then again since I have focused much of my work on crime victims and how to educate and organize them about restorative justice in the last 10 years I thought about the victims. How would a victim whose offender is on death row ever have contact? I know that it would generally never occur unless the victim initiates the contact. This is the traditional response by the justice system.
Most correctional institutions in the U.S. are not particularly supportive of contact between victims and offenders in prison. Yet there are victims who want to meet their offenders through a mediated victim offender dialogue in states like Texas. In fact, there is a long waiting list for victims who want to explore restorative justice in their own cases (i.e. at one time 400 victims were on such a list in Texas). All this left me feeling that someone has to let victims know that "IF" they are willing there is something called restorative justice and it could possibly lead them to a place of healing or more healing than they have previously experienced. But who lets the victims know? Where do crime victims go? Who or what could be the conduit between the victims and the offenders in violent or severely violent cases? Who would fund this work, always a question in the field of restorative justice?
We never got the chance to move forward in this process. Robert died. But Ines courageously continues to push forward to attempt to reach the victims Robert injured (or their families) to communicate that he deeply desired to apologize to each one for his vile actions. The following is a copy of Ines' letter to the editor to a Florida newspaper which first ran the story of Robert's death on death row. It leaves me with a feeling that we must to do more to open doors for victims and their offenders to allow accountability to take place and healing in the lives of those injured by crime. I applaud Ines in her pursuit to understand how to apply restorative justice to the wounds of crime caring first for an offender and now for the victims he injured.
As we push for cutting edge change in public policies affecting all those injured by crime we must look beyond where we are today to expand the numbers of victims and offenders, and their families, who experience restorative justice processes for themselves.
The following is the letter to the editor written by Ines Aubert, pen pal of Robert. I re-print this letter with Ines' permission. Ines hoped to have this letter published in Florida but thus far the letter goes unpublished.
Letter to the editor:
Today it was announced that former death row inmate Robert Power has died of cancer. I have been a pen pal of Robert’s for several years and I have been in contact with him until the end. Robert has told me about the crimes he committed and he has felt great remorse over them. His biggest wish was to let the family of the murder victim and the surviving victims and their families know that he desired to send his apologies to them. He also wanted to express his remorse to each victim he injured over many years. However, without the help of some in the justice system he was not able to pursue with it.
I tried to help him with this process by working with a couple restorative justice experts. Robert did the best he could to take stock and take into account each victim he harmed. He hoped that some of the people he damaged would gain some healing in asking him questions which he was ready to answer honestly. He and I have shared many letters about this topic and I believe he was sincere in this wish. Since I got to know him 3 years ago he has not one time tried to defend himself or to blame anybody else than himself for the damage he caused. I believe that besides the punishment of the death sentence realizing what he did was an additional punishment that weighed as heavily on him as the imprisonment.
Ines Aubert, Vordergasse 20c, 8615 Wermatswil, Switzerland, phone 01141 44 940 04 35 firstname.lastname@example.org