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.

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.”

Reynolds and Wilson-Hartgrove, who studied South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model for their project, argue that crime is not just an offense against the state, but also against family and community.

An execution creates a whole new set of victims and stakeholders who need counseling and help to begin healing, says Reynolds.

“If we’re going to be a productive society, we’ve got to study and change the cycle of violence in our world. It’s no secret that in Durham lots of young black men are dying. And the anger and the pain keep on going.”

Critics say that this kind of support weakens the lesson of accountability.

“What we’re doing is not about ‘I’m-OK-you’re-OK and what you did doesn’t matter,’” counters Reynolds. “It’s about real change. We believe that those who commit crimes should pay their debt to society. If they committed violent crimes, they need to be in prison, but to execute them simply continues the cycle of violence.”

While both Reynolds and Wilson-Hartgrove object to capital punishment, they don’t attempt to sway others. There are plenty of groups advocating a moratorium on the death penalty: their mission is to serve families who have been affected by executions.

One supporter of the death penalty, referred to them by the group Parents of Murdered Children, declined their offer for a visit, says Reynolds.

“But she didn’t refuse to talk with us. She said she knew, intellectually, that execution isn’t the answer, but her heart just wasn’t there yet. And she said she appreciated what we’re trying to do.”

Project support for families includes transportation to visit loved ones in prison, prayer vigils, one-on-one listening sessions, and yearly gatherings for public expression and recognition of grief. Reynolds and Wilson-Hartgrove also speak by invitation to various groups, and work closely with their board, which includes attorneys, families and friends of victims and offenders, and other professionals working with issues of crime, poverty and race relations.

Attorney Cindy Adcock, Duke Law ’91, serves as co-chair of the board and has represented five men executed by the State of North Carolina. Describing execution as “the most premeditated murder of all,” she says the work of CRJP is much needed.

“There’s a tremendous amount of trauma caused by both murders and executions—a fact that’s not recognized in either case,” Adcock says. “The fallout from the time of the murder to the trial to the execution leads to great suffering, and many people need attention and healing and some hope for the future.”

CRJP works closely with Durham Congregations In Action, Project Compassion in Chapel Hill, and individuals including Marty Price of Asheville’s Victim-Offender Reconciliation Project. Their partners also include The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and Parents of Murdered Children.

To date, the project is organized into four healing circles—one each for families of victims; families of offenders; professionals who work on capital cases (attorneys, clergy, victim advocates); and others traumatized by the cycle of violence.

Kacey Reynolds D’04 (l) and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove are the founders and co-leaders of the Capital Restorative Justice Project, which provides support for families of both crime victims and death row inmates. Until August, when First Presbyterian Church offered them free office space, they met regularly at a Durham café.

Bringing together families of victims and offenders has not seemed beneficial, at least not yet. “That would take a lot of specialized training and would definitely have to be victim family-driven,” Reynolds says.

Admittedly improvising funding for CRJP, Reynolds and Wilson-Hartgrove at one point had six part-time jobs between them in addition to working on the project. First Presbyterian Church recently offered them free office space, which means the women can move their daily consultations from Broad Street Café to a more permanent space. They’ve also received donations of office equipment as well as help from area professionals, such as an accountant who set up their books and a volunteer who created their Web site, www.capitalrestorativejustice.org.

“It’s a start,” says Reynolds, who dreams of a comprehensive organization that would some day include researchers, lawyers, counselors and a variety of other services that CRJP is now too small to address.

Each of the women brings specific strengths to the project. “I’m the dreamer, the idealist—I can speak with passion and conviction about the work,” says Reynolds.

“Leah is the realist, who believes as I do but who will bring me down to earth when I need it.”

A native North Carolinian and graduate of Meredith College, Reynolds maintains a long-standing interest in drama, and she will act this fall in a Justice Theater Project play organized by St. Francis of Assisi Church of Raleigh.

“It’s one thing to hear a story, but when you see it played out on the stage before you, you really understand and feel the emotion, the pain,” she says.

Wilson-Hartgrove, with her husband, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove D’06, founded Rutba House, an intentional Christian community in Durham’s predominantly black Walltown neighborhood. They have welcomed into their community a teenager whose father murdered the teen’s mother when he was a small child.

“I see this work as an extension of my life as a member of the Rutba House and St. John’s Baptist Church in Walltown,” she says. This teen’s experience “taught me the importance of having one’s grief recognized, and shared, in order to begin the healing process.”

According to Tina and others, the work of CRJP is making a positive difference.

Tina had not visited her brother for three years after he was sent to Central Prison for the death of their parents. She was confused and upset. Then she heard from Sarah Anthony, a member of CRJP’s board, and met Reynolds and Wilson-Hartgrove.

“They were a little surprised that I wasn’t angry—I guess they’re never sure how they’ll be received—and I told them they really could help me,” says Tina. “I felt that the whole thing was so much bigger than me.”

She found comfort, she says, in hearing that her visits to her brother on death row made him “feel loved for the first time in his life. My whole mission became to make sure he had peace in his heart the night he was executed. What started out in anger and hatred had to end in love.”

It’s a misconception that you will feel better if the person responsible for the death of your loved one is removed from the earth, she says. “See, it’s the trickle-down effect—the pain doesn’t stop with just one person. You can sit on couches in homes that are mansions and homes in the ghetto and hear the same thing. This thing has no socioeconomic barriers. It affects us all and we can connect through these healing circles.”

Ann, a 62-year-old woman whose brother was executed a little more than a year ago, lives with the pain on a day-to-day basis. “He’s gone, but I’m still here, hurting and trying to make sense of it all,” she says. “My family said I wasn’t strong enough to sit in there and witness his death, but I told them I could handle it. I couldn’t let him do it alone.”

Tina felt the same way. “You know,” she says, “we think we get power from money or high positions in society, but we don’t even use the biggest power we all have. In forgiveness, we have the final victory.”

For more information on the Capital Restorative Justice Project, contact Reynolds or Wilson-Hartgrove at (919) 801-1781, e-mail thecrjp@hotmail.com, or visit the Web site at www.capitalrestorativejustice.org.

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

Debbie Selinsky is a freelance writer living in Durham.