What is justice? State program brings victims and offenders face to face
Feb 23, 2010
Martha Early, a middle-aged single mother, and Andrew Papke, the chaplain's assistant, sit silently across from each other in the chapel, their hands clasped tightly across a wooden table. To Early's right sits a stack of pictures of her daughter Beth, killed -- along with her boyfriend, Daniel London -- by a teenage drunken driver in 1996. In front of her sits a well-worn binder bursting with colorful stationery and letters full of memories of Beth; she brought them to share with Andrew. Next to the binder is her Bible.
Early gazes at Papke with a look of calm sadness, while Papke's head hangs solemnly. Seconds turn into minutes, and neither one moves. It seems as if the slightest murmur would send them back to earth, where they will be forced to communicate with words.
Finally, Early squeezes Papke's hand.
"I love you, Andrew," she whispers.
"I love you, too," he answers hoarsely.
Within moments, Papke's arms -- the very same arms that steered a car headlong into Beth Early -- are encircling her mother. After engaging in a brief hug, Martha Early gets ready to begin her three-hour drive back to Austin. Andrew returns to his prison cell at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, where he is serving 40 years for intoxication manslaughter.
Papke and Early's meeting might sound unusual, but since 1994, more than 560 victims of crimes in Texas have requested similar meetings with convicted prisoners who have wronged them or their families. Forty victims have completed these "mediations," offered by the Victim Offender Mediation/ Dialogue program run by the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice.
Initiated during the Nineties by victims of violent crime, VOM/D is based on the notion of "restorative justice:" that healing and rehabilitation are best achieved through direct personal accountability, not systematic retribution.
....Still, Early and Papke's reconciliatory experience in the mediation program is rare. Few participants spend their mediation time praying, hugging, and sharing words of love and affection. And many crime victims and offenders never consider participating in the program at all.
Nevertheless, embedded in the tragic story of Daniel London and Beth Early's deaths are lessons about the uncertain nature of healing, justice, and rehabilitation. Beth's parents, Martha and Adrian Early, entered the mediation program and met with Papke on separate occasions. Now divorced, both withstood their grief and anger to attain different degrees of understanding and forgiveness. On the other hand, Jack and Alice London have never considered mediation. Since Daniel's death, they have become tireless advocates for stiffer drunken driving legislation.
The Papke family, also victimized by their son's deadly recklessness, must acknowledge that they may not live to see Andrew a free man. "I feel like I am in prison too," says Andrew's father, Howard. "Part of me is just gone, because I will be dead by the time he gets out."
Finally, there is Andrew Papke, who struggles with what it means to "do the right thing" -- when the only right thing was to never have done it at all.
....Adrian Early says he found little comfort in Papke's lengthy sentence. The trial had done very little to answer his questions concerning Beth's death, and he didn't believe justice had been served. He heard about VOM/D through Victims Services, and requested mediation.
Doerfler says that Adrian Early's reaction is common. "What is justice?" he asks. "When you start looking closely at all the idiosyncrasies that victims and offenders bring to that question, it starts to get murky real quick. A trial ends up being a contest between attorneys, with victims and offenders really becoming disposable commodities -- so you end up with sentences that do nothing to meet the emotional needs of a victim.
"At the same time," he continues, "offenders are told they are going to pay their debt to society, but what the hell does that mean? Society is affected, sure, but ultimately they have offended against individuals and need to answer to them."