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Video Review: The Amy Wall Story

Aug 10, 2009

By Kate Strong

Center for Peacemaking Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. 2009.

When a drunk driver hit the car driven by seventeen year old Amy Wall, her family was plunged into grief. For Joe Avila, the man driving the car that killed Amy, the days following were filled with despair as he awaited the court proceedings. Yet, a meeting between Joe and Amy's family organised by the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program out of Fresno, California, helped them both find the peace they so desperately needed.

This video, recorded at the 2009 Restorative Justice Conference held at Fresno Pacific University, allows Joe Avila and Derrick Wall tell their stories of the crime, meeting with each other, and healing.

Joe Avila and Derrick Wall take turns telling the story of the aftermath of Amy Wall's death. Derrick, her younger brother, tells the audience about Amy's character, her final year of life, and her hopes for the future. He recounts the last memory he had of Amy's living face - a turned head, raised eyebrows, and a car pulling away down the street - with the painfully precise memory of a younger brother who grew up not in the shadow of a distant sibling but practicing dancing with his sister when he admitted to her that he was nervous about his first middle school dance.

Then Joe, brimming with the earnestness of a man who knows his dark side well,admits that he spent his life around the time he killed Amy looking for his next drink. He had gotten in trouble with the law before for drunk driving but the attorney always told him the same thing: "it's normal, everyone does it, we'll just do the best we can and figure out how to get you off." But he had never killed before.

Faced with the stark awareness that whatever the attorney said, he was the agent of a person's death and a family's permanent injury, Joe spent the next five days in a consuming fog of self-hate, wanting to die, until the chaplain visited him and told him that Jesus had died for even him. It clicked. Joe knew he had to go on living but it could not be the way it had been before. He had to change.

Starting from these perspectives, the two continue to explain what happened as

  • Joe got the maximum sentence of twelve years in prison
  • Derrick entered college with the painful reminder of Amy's death clinging to him
  • Joe got out of prison and began to actively work to prevent drunk driving
  • Derrick did his dissertation on adolescent-sibling loss.
Meanwhile, Derrick still felt that the wound of Amy's death had never healed properly. Eventually he was contacted by a man named Ron Claasen who told him that he was with the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program out of Fresno. Ron offered Derrick a chance to meet Joe and talk to him. Derrick immediately refused. What would he have to say to the man who had killed his sister?

Years later, Derrick discovered through a chance incident that Joe had devoted his energy to preventing drunk driving. This knowledge broke his last defenses, and he wept for a long time. Realizing it was time to see Joe and face the grief head-on, Derrick contacted Ron Claasen again. They set up a time and place for a meeting. When Joe and Derrick finally came face to face for the first time, neither was quite sure what to expect. They talked for a long time, honestly and openly. At the end of it all, Joe asked Derrick to forgive him. Almost immediately, he did.

The story is a wonderful testimony to the power of forgiveness and the good that can come from victim-offender mediation. While Derrick sticks to a pre-written script as he speaks, it is very clear that rehearsal has not diminished the depth of emotion he feels. Every word is genuine. In contrast, Joe's delivery seems more extemporaneous; he even comes close to tears at moments.

The two also focus on different aspects of the story. Joe talk at length about feelings of alienation in the court room, while Derrick focuses on how much he did not want to know who Joe was. The differences in delivery and focus are at points jarring. But fundamentally these differences strengthen the presentation because it mirrors the an actual meeting in victim-offender mediation: agreeing to a particular format allows both sides an equal chance to share what they think ought to be shared and the differences between the two testimonies create a whole authentic picture rather than merely a streamlined marketable sound bite.

Joe and Derrick stumble over words, make small jokes, and gesture to people unseen by the camera but still present at the conference. They are, after all, not characters in a stock tale of redemption and forgiveness. They are people, permanently affected by the death of one girl. It is a shame that the camera was not set up such that we could see their reactions to each other's words. That would have only increased the sense of dialogue.

This testament to the seemingly-unbelievable - actually meeting and forgiving the man who killed your sister - demonstrates that the effects of a crime do not have to be limited to mere destruction. Joe and Derrick would not be at the same conference fighting against drunk driving and telling the story of Amy if it were not for that meeting. They truly are moving beyond just recounting Amy's death to honoring her life.

Information about "The Amy Wall Story" can be found at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies (Fresno Pacific University) website. It costs $20 ($5 for production and handling and $15 for preventing drunk driving, as decided by Derek and Joe). 

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