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Listening to crime victims: North Carolina restorative justice conference

July 24, 2011

When I prepare for these panels I ask what I think a listening
audience would want to know. I also think of questions that the victim
would want to answer.  Each victim had a very short set time to tell
their stories given the time constraints. I would follow up with
questions. As I considered each victim/survivor I thought of how
different each story was from the other. Bill Pelke’s grandmother, Ruth,
was brutally murdered by a group of ninth grade girls in 1985. Stephen
Watt, a Wyoming state trooper at the time, was shot multiple times by a
fleeing bank robber in 1982 leaving Watt in his police vehicle bleeding
to death. Bess Klassen-Landis ‘s mother, Helen, was brutally raped and
murdered by a man in 1969  in the family’s Indiana home Bess was 13
years old.  Kim Book’s only daughter, Nicole, was murdered in 1995 at 17
years of age in her father’s home in Delaware by a boy known by her
daughter.  Again, there is no way to hear such horrible stories and not
be affected.

Crime Victim Roundtable

From left to right: Bill Pelke, Kim Book, Lisa Rea, Bess Klassen-Landis, Stephen Watt

What I wanted to know was how had each of these victims come to place where they supported restorative justice? Had they experienced restorative justice in a way that allowed for some kind of healing in their lives? How? Two of the four victims had met with the offender(s) or had some kind of direct contact (i.e. through letter contact). Bill had contact with the “ring leader,” Paula, on many occasions.  Stephen had been in contact with his offender, Mark, both by letter and in person. Bess and Kim’s stories were different. Neither had contact with the offenders. The offender who killed Bess’s mother was never apprehended. In Kim’s case, the offender did not take responsibility for his actions—a critical requirement in restorative justice.

Listening to each tell his/her story led me to realize that each victim had experienced some kind of healing because of restorative justice. Each had moved on with their lives in ways that can only be described as “healthy”. Forgiveness was raised during the roundtable.  Each spoke of their opposition to the death penalty, particularly Bill and Bess who have spoken around the country, and around the world, declaring their strong opposition to the death penalty. Bill founded the nonprofit Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing to organize the increasing number of murder victims family members speaking out against capital punishment. Bess talked about finding her voice after joining the Journey on a speaking tour. Healing came for her through telling her story and finding others who were finding their way forward after horrific violence by promoting peace and nonviolence. 

Kim had founded a nonprofit also: Victims Voices Heard, which promotes restorative justice and seeks to assist victims by urging victim offender dialogue. Even though a restorative justice meeting with her own offender had not happened and perhaps never will Kim sees the value and is a strong advocate for such one-on-one victim-offender meetings.

Stephen had met his offender, Mark, by making contact directly himself. That contact happened through Stephen writing the offender. Steve tells how hatred was eating him alive before he forgave the man who almost killed him. But since he contacted the offender and then later met him in person he now supports him and has become his strongest advocate seeking a parole date to release him from prison. In fact, right before the North Carolina conference Stephen was in Wyoming at a parole hearing for Mark, one of many, pleading that the state release him after serving 29 years in prison.  Stephen tells of the terrible effect Mark’s incarceration has had on him due to flashbacks of the terrible violence when he was shot in 1982. Post-traumatic stress disorder is real; Stephen experiences it often but especially every time Mark comes up for parole. According to Stephen, what would help him heal, more than he has to date, is to see Mark out of prison.

What these stories told me during the roundtable is that direct victim offender dialogue is incredibly powerful. It does provide for healing in the victim. It also provides hope for the offender if and when the offender is released. In Bill Pelke’s case, he is waiting for the day when Paula will be released. That date is about two years away. He is already making plans to set up a committee to, as he says, “restore Paula”.  He wants her to have a chance at starting her life over.  Bill is concerned that Paula will have a hard time in the “outside”.  Through restorative justice, Paula has taken responsibility for that horrible crime that brutally took Bill’s grandmother from this earth. But Bill has forgiven Paula, as he states. That forgiveness has led Bill to the place he is today.

For Kim and Bess, their healing is less complete. The offender in Bess’s case was never found. Could he still be found?  As I work in the field of wrongful convictions and watch the increasing number of exonerees be freed from prison, and sometimes death row, I wonder could the case of Bess’s mother, Helen Bohn Klassen, ever be solved?  Maybe one day Bess, too, will have contact with the offender. Maybe.  I am aware that Bess would meet the offender but nevertheless Bess has found some healing as she has found her “voice” to speak for justice—restorative justice and ways of bringing peace into the world.

Kim also has not met with the offender, a man she has explained does not express remorse; he does not take responsibility for the killing of her daughter.  Again, a restorative justice dialogue, or a victim offender meeting, cannot occur until the guilty party takes responsibly for his actions.  Some in the justice field forget this fact, I believe. Restorative justice is real justice that truly puts the victim in the center of the system in ways that allow some kind of restoration to occur. Does healing and restoration occur in the offender also?  Yes, I believe it does. It happens through offender accountability which allows change or transformation in the offender.  In Kim’s case, the offender may never take responsibility for his actions. But that has not changed Kim’s mind about the great value of restorative justice. Kim wants other victims to have the choice to meet their offenders, something that often is not available or even at times such meetings are strongly discouraged.

I’ve been asked since attending this national conference what I enjoyed about it the most?  What was most significant? Which speakers were the best?  My answer is that the victim’s voices who spoke at the conference were the voices I heard the loudest. It is with their voices raised that the justice system in the U.S. and around the world will change. Victims like these four survivors are urging the adoption of restorative justice policies.  The restorative justice movement needs to make room to hear their victims. We need to do a better job of presenting their views to lawmakers and to the media. We need more conferences in the U.S. and around the world that shine a light on their stories. Their voices will change the system ultimately for the better. We will move closer to a justice system based on restorative justice when we listen to crime victims like these four individuals.


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