Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools


Restorative justice, survivors and the death penalty

Aug 04, 2009

by Dan Van Ness

Two interesting items appeared on my desktop today, both about the death penalty. One, titled Conn. Home Invasion Survivor Faces Long Court Case, begins this way:

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – At 52, Dr. William Petit faces years — perhaps decades — of emotionally draining court hearings before the two men charged with murdering his family in a 2007 home invasion may be convicted and executed.

He’ll have to listen repeatedly to the horrific details of the crimes against his wife, who was strangled, and two daughters, who were tied to their beds. All three died of smoke inhalation from a fire police say the intruders set as they fled Petit’s house after holding the family hostage for hours. Petit, a prominent physician who was beaten during the ordeal, will sit feet away from the defendants as they assert their rights and file appeal after appeal.

As lawmakers weigh the future of the death penalty in some states, officials are giving greater weight to the effect of prolonged death penalty cases on victims’ families. Petit realizes that the case might drag on for years, but he remains committed to seeing defendants Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky put to death.

The second was a blog entry written by Linda Booker, a filmmaker who has recently completed a documentary called, Love Lived on Death Row. It begins:

If you had told me four years ago on the day I received my Certificate in Documentary Studies from Duke University that my first major project would feature the death penalty issue, I probably would have smiled politely and said, "I doubt that." It wasn't an issue I had extreme feelings about one way or the other. But several weeks later as I was checking the weather on our local TV station's website, a headline caught my eye: "Family Forgives Father For A Mother's Death." I immediately felt inexplicably compelled to make a documentary about this family's amazing story of forgiveness. What I didn't know then is that checking the weather that day would change my life and some of my beliefs as I went on to produce a feature length film about the Syriani sibling's story and their experience with North Carolina's system of justice and the media as they faced their father's impending execution.

It would be superficial to read these and conclude that they are simply an account of how survivors of homicide respond differently. The circumstances of the murders were very different. The Syriani children forgave their father for murdering their mother, and their plea to the court for a prison sentence rather than death was so that they could continue to receive memories of their mother and support from their remaining parent. They believed that he had changed dramatically since the murder of their mother.

Dr. Petit, on the other hand, had/has no relationship -- other than the crime -- with the two home invaders. He favors the death penalty and is willing to invest the years it may take before it is carried out. But this is not his sole focus. He also has participated in fundraisers for causes that his wife and children supported.

The Connecticut story focuses on the length of time it can take before the death penalty is carried out, and the toll this can take on the survivors. Another survivor, quoted in the article, described her life as being on hold because she never knows when there may be another appeal, another trial.

Rev. Cathy Harrington is also quoted. Her daughter and a roommate were also murdered in a home invasion. After months of negotiation among defense attorneys, prosecutors, and representatives from the victims' families, the man charged with the crime pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Rev. Harrington cites the length of the appeal process as one factor in her decision. But another stems from her religious beliefs in compassion for others and in respect for the innate worth and dignity of every human being. And both families hope that over time the murderer will change so that it will be possible for them to meet with him in a restorative dialogue.

So how do we respond from a restorative perspective? A central premise is that crime causes harm and that the affected parties should have a voice in deciding how that harm is repaired. While this is best done in a restorative encounter, this is also an argument for allowing victims and survivors to express their points of views at key points in the criminal justice process.

Giving victims and survivors a voice is not the same as giving them the final say in what is to be done. So what weight should be given? Or to put it another way, what consideration should the pertinent sentencing judges give to the fact that the Syriani children want their father spared death while Dr. Petit wants the murderers of his family executed?

What do you think?

Related content
Related content

Document Actions

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Aug 04, 2009 08:54 PM

Dan, this is a very important topic to look at. <br />Does the criminal justice system listen to some victims of crime and not others? Often, as we know, it is prosecutors who use victims to make their case in convicting a defendant. It is the prosecutor who decides whether to seek the death penalty~sometimes with the input from the victim's family and sometimes not. But what happens when the victim is proposing something that the prosecutors, and others, do not want? <br />Perhaps it comes at the time of hearing but sometimes it comes later. <br /> <br />Case in point: Stephen Watt. I'm attaching an article about his extraordinary case. He was a state trooper in Wyoming shot five times by a fleeing bank robber in 1982. Stephen should have died that day but he lived. I met Stephen through my org., JRP, when he made contact with us asking to tell his story. He had forgiven the man who shot him. Not only had he forgiven him but he was seeking his release from prison. <br /> <br />Mark Farnham, the offender, was sentenced to 55-75 years in prison. But the victim, Stephen, has repeatedly asked that the state of Wyoming, through the Governor's office, to release him. He says that it would be much less traumatic for him as the victim in this case to have Farnham released. Farham and Stephen Watt met in prison and had their first victim-offender dialogue many years ago. Did it change his mind? Read this story. It's complicated but Stephen had a change of mind and a change of heart. This encounter also had a life changing effect on Mark Farhnam, the offender. <br /> <br />It is hard to fathom perhaps that Stephen and Mark are today &quot;friends&quot; but there you have it. What do we do with stories like these? What does the &quot;system&quot; do when a victim says I want the man released. Stephen has suffered in many ways since this traumatic shooting in his squad car in 1982. Post traumatic stress disorder is very real and has affected him ever since. (we could do more for victims in this way: to address these types of health problems that often come after violetn crime) <br /> <br />Stephen told me that to continually go before the parole board in Wyoming and explain why he strongly believes the man should be free has also caused him great pain. But Stephen continues to make the case for Mark's release. <br />You'd think that a man of his stature, coming from the law enforcement community, would have more weight. But that appears not to be the case. <br /> <br />Some might call Stephen &quot;some kind of nut&quot;. Well, Stephen Watt has been elected to the Wyoming state legislature. I was honored to have Stephen join me in fighting for restorative justice. He is the very example of how restoraive justice allows healing in a crime victim and in his offender. <br /> <br />The voices of victims vary, as you say, from case to case. But it is hard to ignore the voices that are getting louder around the world as they tell their stories which make the case for victims-driven restorative justice. <br /> <br /><a href="" rel="nofollow">[&hellip;]-%20billingsgazette_com.htm</a> <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Aba Gayle
Aba Gayle says:
Aug 06, 2009 08:05 PM

Dr. Petit is waiting for the death penalty to do what? heal his pain? bring justice? in revenge for such senseless and cruel murders? <br /> <br />The article states that Dr. Petit is prepared to spend hours and years sitting in courtrooms and hear the painful and hideous details of the crimes. The truth is that he does not have to be in any courtroom. Sitting and listening to all the ugly details is self inflicted torture. and would be a choice he makes. Perhaps no one has told him that being a victim is a choice. He can chose not to be a victim. <br />I fully understand his pain and have empathy for his loss. The grieving process after such a trauma is long and hard and and he is not alone. I would suggest that he can share his pain with members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims Families for Human Rights. Members of these groups has all lost family member/s to murders and all oppose the death penalty under any circumstances.

lisa Rea
lisa Rea says:
Aug 06, 2009 11:02 PM

It is good to see this comment from Aba Gayle. What some don't know, and she did not share, is that she is a victim of violent crime. A survivor. Aba Gayle's daughter, Catherine Blount, was murdered in 1980. <br /> <br />When I first began work in the restoraive justice field working for Justice Fellowship in California in the '90s I became aware of the astounding story of Aba Gayle. I also learned that there was a group called Murder Victims for Reconciliation. What hope that provided me that such a organization existed! Aba Gayle's story was one of the first I read that described how one woman responded to horrific violent crime. I have learned since that time that there are more and more victims than just a handful who are seeking something more from the criminal justice system. They are looking for some kind of healing, some kind of restoration, to allow them to move on with their lives. <br /> <br />Aba Gayle is not alone. There are increasing numbers of crime victims asking for something else from the system. Not everyone calls it restorative justice, but many do. Yet it points to the need for deep, systemic reform of a flawed system. <br /> <br />Thanks for your comment, Aba Gayle, and all the work you have done for many years sharing your story and sharing of your life. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Aug 08, 2009 01:16 PM

Aba Gayle is right on. Thank you for sharing and for your leadership in helping others to healing through forgiveness. <br /> <br />Bill

Patti says:
Aug 08, 2009 03:46 PM

<br />As the mother of a murder victim I am disturbed by Abigail’s “holier than thou” attitude towards Dr. Petit's bravery in stating that he is willing to invest the years it may take to represent his family in court hearings and proceedings before justice and the death penalty is carried out. <br /> <br />I have worked with homicide survivors for over 15 years and I can tell you that a full 80% or more believe in the death penalty and feel the need to represent their loved ones through the justice system as no one else can better represent the voice of the victims but those who loved them. <br /> <br />I can not forgive a rapist for raping my daughter, only she can. Murder is no different. You can only forgive the murderer for your own suffering not the suffering your loved ones went through. <br /> <br />For those survivors who do not wish to deal with the reality of the brutality caused by the killers, through the justice system in their cases or for those who wish to &quot;forgive&quot; the killers for the pain and grief caused them by all means do so. Please do not pretend to want to see justice carried out for our loved ones and do NOT portray yourself as caring at all about any survivors of homicide who bravely sit through every hearing in the name of justice for their loved ones. <br /> <br />If you do not believe in the death penalty that is your right. Please stop fighting for the lives of murderers in the name of victims and use your energy to take care of yourself. It may save some future innocent lives. <br /> <br /><a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Aug 10, 2009 06:31 PM

Patti, I appreciate hearing your views. Anytime there is a discussion about the death penalty there are strong views expressed especially among crime victims. But I think what we are seeing here is that more and more crime victims who have experienced violent crime are speaking out. Not all of them are in agreement. <br /> <br />I do believe that crime victims can agree on a few things. They would like to see offenders held accountable (to their victims) and they would also like to see the needs of victims put in the center of the criminal justice. That is why I am a passionate advocate for victims-driven restorative justice. I also believe victims would desire some kind of healing or restoration, or as my friend Jennifer Bishop Jenkins says victims want to move on to a healthier life in the future. <br /> <br />I do think there is room for a dialogue regarding how we treat victims of crime and how we hold offenders accountable. I also agree with something I believe you were saying in your message. There is a need for respectful dialogue. That applies to all victims no matter how they stand on this subject or any other topic related to criminal justice matters. <br /> <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />Rea Consulting <br />California

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Aug 11, 2009 10:51 AM

Holier than Thou? <br /> <br />I am a Christian. Jesus teaches us to forgive, forgive, forgive, and to forgive another 487 times. This is because by then forgiveness will become a way of live. <br /> <br />We are comanded to forgive. We are not taught to pick and choose what we will forgive and not forgive. Jesus taught forgiveness with his life and with his death. He taught the multitudes and his deciples. <br /> <br />If one learns the lesson that Jesus teaches us about forgiveness and does live a forgiving life and tries to pass on the peace that is beyond understanding and the healing that forgiveness brings in not being holier than thou. They are the living testimoney that Christ wants among his followers. <br /> <br />And we are commanded to love our enemy. When God says love your enemy I think He meant don't kill them. Many people want the death penalty as a matter of revenge. Revenge is never, ever the answer. The answer is love and compassion for all of humanity. <br /> <br />Hate the sin, love the sinner. If you have compassion for all of humanity you will not want to see anyone put in the death chamber and their life taken from them, even if they killed your daughter as was the case when Aba Gayles daughter Katherine was killed. The killer is on death row today, but because she doesn't want him executed by the state doesn't make her holier than thou. <br /> <br />She is just sharing what brought her peace and only trying to help the good doctor. <br /> <br />When a loved one is killed there is much pain and anger, but the killing of another human being will not bring the peace that a victim family member needs. That anger can become like a cancer and destroy a person. <br /> <br />Society has a right to be safe from people who commit terrible crimes, but they can be kept in prison for the rest of their life if that is what is needed, not more killing. <br /> <br />Should a victims voice be heard. Absolutly <br /> <br />How much weight should it carry? That is the question. <br /> <br />It should carry enough weight to make sure that justice wins. In true justice there has to be an element of mercy or it is not justice. The death penalty allows no room for mercy. <br /> <br />We are to be merciful, even to those who show no mercy. We have to be better than them and rise to the standard that Jesus wants us to follw. Not holier than thou, but as a simple servant and follower of Christ. <br /> <br />In His Peace, <br /> <br />Bill Pelke

Dan Van Ness
Dan Van Ness says:
Aug 11, 2009 02:08 AM

I respect the deeply held convictions that survivors of homicide (and others, of course) hold on the death penalty, life without parole and so forth. <br /> <br />I didn't so much want to raise the issues of the merits of the death penalty, forgiveness, etc. My question is different: is it just to sentence defendants differently merely because the positions of the survivors of their victims differ? <br /> <br />This question is important in all sentencing, but the import is magnified when the sentence is death or natural life without parole. <br /> <br />RJ calls for the victim to be heard, but we have been less clear about the weight that voice should be given by judges, parole boards and other justice system personnel as they make decisions. <br /> <br />I think that this is a tough issue but one we need to think about.

adolph geier
adolph geier says:
Aug 11, 2009 11:22 AM

Let god provide the mercy &amp; let man provide the justice (death penalty).

serena says:
May 06, 2010 12:14 PM

I agree with Patti...Who are any of you to attack Dr. Petit for not being able to forgive the ANIMALS who RAPED, TORTURED and MURDERED his family...and then BURNED DOWN his house... <br /> <br />What normal person would not want such monsters DEAD? <br /> <br />Have some compassion for Patti and Dr. Petit and realize that not everyone is a &quot;holier than thou&quot; in forgiving monsters as you guys are...

taylor says:
May 07, 2010 09:02 AM

It's not hard for me to remember that we were human long before religion entered the pictured and I'd like to share my non-religious view on Dan's question as an advocate for restorative justice. <br /> <br />Even though some of beliefs and attitudes may be shared, Restorative Justice stems more from humanitarianism than religion. It is innately human for us to live interdependently and collectively. Crime, a man made phenomenon, differs among cultures, families, and individuals. <br /> <br />I like to take pride and responsibility in my capacity, ability, and freedom to think beyond historically damaging structures, including the criminal justice system and the belief that inflicted punishment is necessary retribution for criminal behavior. <br /> <br />In answering your question Dan, I believe it is humanely just to consider the positions of the victim's survivors in sentencing. If the possibility and motivation are there for victims and offenders to begin developing relationship, even if only by sparing a seemingly unforgivable life, what better way for humans to develop compassion for one another. <br /> <br />This reminds me of some well-known stories: One is the Native American legend about the Two Wolves: <a href="" rel="nofollow">[&hellip;]/TwoWolves-Cherokee.html</a> <br /> <br />The others are religion or philosophically based but extend across different faiths. They are reminders that anyone at anytime could be moved closer to God (or their godlike state, or the universal energy, or dhamma, or however you wish to fill in the blank). <br /> <br />If protection from others is of fundamental consideration, isn't that what high security prison offers (to a certain extent)? What additional pain does one have to endure than the conscience of taking another's life or enduring the mind that allows him/her to do that without a conscience? Life without parole seems more treacherous from this perspective than death since it goes directly against our human need for freedom and autonomy. <br /> <br />One challenge that stand out for me on supporting the importance of considering survivors voice as a definitive role of restorative justice is that there are many times more than one survivor's voice and they very well could differ. Then what?

Marietta Jaeger Lane
Marietta Jaeger Lane says:
May 08, 2010 11:09 AM

I am a believer in the healing power and restorative justice of forgiveness, although I readily admit that when my little girl was kidnapped, I could have happily taken the life of the kidnapper with my bare hands and a smile on my face. Susie was held captive for two weeks in a locked closet of such small size that she could only sit with bended knees or stand in her own excrement, left all by herself in an abandoned ranch house. Her kidnapper came with food and water once a day and raped her daily, finally strangling her to death. She was decapitated (her head thrown into the bottom of an outhouse) and <br />dismembered, with her limbs burned and the rest of her body cut into pieces, kept in a freezer till they were eventually cooked and eaten. <br /> <br />How does a mother live with such memories?? Would the execution of the serial killer change anything Susie had to endure? Would it return her to my arms? Would the death of a very sick, mentally disturbed young man equal the death of my beautiful little girl, whose precious life had inestimable value for me? <br /> <br />I began to focus on how best to honor Susie's <br />7-year-old life and I realized that to become that whom I abhorred -- someone who wants to kill to solve my problems, just like the kidnapper -- would only insult and profane the goodness and sweetness of my daughter, as well as diminish and degrade my own dignity and worth. <br />And, although I could never spare her all she had to endure, I began to wonder what life-giving gifts I could salvage from the experience. I began to look for ways to redeem her suffering. <br />Instead of continuing the killing by the execution of the kidnapper, I began to ponder the possibilities of the alternative sentence -- mandatory life imprisonment without never, ever any possibility of parole. What if her death should provoke the means of eventual healing and rehabilitation for the one who took her life?! <br /> <br />If I truly wanted to honor Susie's memory, I needed to aspire to a higher moral principle, more nobly and honorably befitting who she was, a higher moral principle which says that all of life is sacred and worthy of preservation. To execute the kidnapper would only make another victim and another grieving family. <br />Healing does not come from killing someone else, however deserving of death we deem that person to be. For over 35 years, I've seen murder victim family members who feel truly justified in retaining a vindictive mindset, only to find that once the execution of the offender in their case happens, it didn't do what they hoped, and were promised by the Prosecutor, it would do. <br />They were still left empty, unsatisfied and unhealed as they were beforehand and the offender has made more victims. A Chinese proverb says &quot;Those who seek revenge should dig two graves.&quot; <br /> <br />Victim family members have every right to their initial normal, valid, human emotions of rage and retaliation. However, should the laws of our land be based on gut-level, blood-thirsty desires of violence and revenge, or should they call us to higher moral principles, proving that we are indeed the moral, civilized society we want the world to see us as?! It has been said that the quality of a society is measured by how humanely it treats the lowest of its members. <br />By continuing to use violence in any form to solve our problems, look what we're teaching and modeling for our children! A glance at the media headlines continues to remind us of the violent ways our young people, more and more, are solving their problems of fear, conflict, prejudice and hatred. We must find a more healing, restorative means of justice to solve our problems and heal humanity.

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
May 10, 2010 09:01 PM

Marietta, thank you for telling your incredible story. I had heard of you for so many years, Marietta, but until I heard you tell your story in person I did not know the true power of your words. <br /> <br />I know so many are probably left astounded by your journey as a victim's family member. They cannot comprehend how you could feel the way you do today. Yet, you have experienced a measure of healing. That reflects many things: your faith, and the healing quality of restorative justice and as you say, forgiveness. <br /> <br />Thank you for sharing this here. I am glad I met you and heard you through the work of the Journey of Hope. I know that your story affects the lives of so many as you continue to speak out. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />California

Add comment

You can add a comment by filling out the form below. Plain text formatting. Comments are moderated.

RJOB Archive
View all

About RJOB




Eric Assur portlet image