In Pursuit of Restorative Justice

By Debbie Selinsky

“Restorative justice is fundamentally different from retributive justice. It is justice that puts energy into the future, not into what is past. It focuses on what needs to be healed, what needs to be repaid, what needs to be learned in the wake of crime. It looks at what needs to be strengthened if such things are not to happen again.”

— Susan Sharpe, Restorative Justice: A Vision for Healing and Change (1998)

The image of her brother’s execution last year after his 23 years on death row is forever burned into Ann’s* memory. She recalls every traumatic detail of that day.

“We were in this tiny room, practically on top of each other, and it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop,” she says. Before she was led into the viewing room, an officer told her not to cry or show any emotion because it would upset the victim’s family.

Photo by Scott Langley
Witness viewing room for prisoner execution, North Carolina Central Prison, Raleigh, N.C.

“I couldn’t believe that my brother was dying before my eyes and I wasn’t supposed to cry or say anything,” she says.

The scene was the same as Tina witnessed her brother’s execution except for one detail: the murder victims and the offender were family members. After her younger brother killed their parents, he was sent to death row and executed as she and other siblings watched. Years later, the family remains split by the tragedy.

“I’m still not invited to the family reunions. Some of my aunts and uncles consider me a traitor because I stated in public that I did not want to see my brother killed, too,” she says. “But as a Christian, I had to offer him forgiveness and unconditional love.”

Kacey Reynolds D’04 and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove have heard many such stories in their efforts to minister through their new organization, the Capital Restorative Justice Project (CRJP), which is based in Durham, N.C.

CRJP’s mission is to “promote healing and nonviolent responses within North Carolina communities torn apart by capital murder and executions,” according to Reynolds, an ordained Baptist minister who has worked in grassroots organizing, parish ministry, hospital chaplaincy and public policy research.

“When I began working with the families of murder victims and offenders I found that there is really no outlet for sharing their stories and expressing the pain of their loss,” she says. “The family of the murder victim may get to say a little in court—if their statements will further the prosecutor’s case—but there’s even less for the families of offenders who face execution.

“In fact, the expression of that loss and pain is considered unacceptable. Their grief is not recognized in any way. We wanted to create a safe and supportive environment for them to grieve and talk about their loved ones.”

“CRJP seeks to create a space for families who have experienced similar trauma to come together in what we call ‘healing circles’,” says Leah Wilson-Hartgrove. “This is where they can share their stories, listen to how others have experienced the pain of homicide or execution of a loved one, and realize that they are not alone.”

* Names of family members interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

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