Two stories on Restorative Justice
A Journey Toward Healing
Restorative justice brings crime victims and perpetrators together to confront the loss. It's helping one grieving widow find forgiveness.
By Jenifer Warren
Los Angeles Times
October 1, 2005
SAN QUENTIN -- Deep inside this infamous old prison, Patty O'Reilly stands before eight men doing hard time, her shoulders slumped, a man's gold wedding band hanging from a chain around her neck.
Three of the inmates are sobbing. The others sit motionless on metal chairs, eyes locked on the small, sad woman in front of them.
O'Reilly's words seep out. A ballet teacher from Sonoma, she has come to San Quentin to share a story -- about the killing of a husband and the trauma caused by that loss.
She tells of two daughters left fatherless, of a widow, not yet 40, paralyzed by grief. Weeping now, O'Reilly describes happy futures shredded in an instant by one man's single, terrible act.
But she also talks of the unlikely journey that has led her through the gates of San Quentin, to face this group of veteran cons. They can't believe she's come. But to hear her tell it, O'Reilly really had no choice.
Her path is being followed by a rising number of crime victims and survivors. Despite ever-tougher sentences and the world's highest incarceration rate, many victims feel the nation's traditional method of meting out justice comes up short. Anguished and unable to heal, they are finding strength through an alternative philosophy called restorative justice.
Inspired by ancient tribal traditions and biblical teachings, restorative justice aims to achieve accountability for crimes in a direct, tangible way -- rather than simply through "symbolic" penalties imposed by the state. As supporters see it, offenders must understand that their crimes were not some abstract violation of law, but a harm inflicted upon real people who need a chance to be made whole again.
In perhaps its purest expression, restorative justice occurs through mediated, face-to-face encounters between victim (or surviving relatives) and offender. Victims chronicle their pain, ask nagging questions, speak their piece. Offenders, in turn, confront the extent of the human damage they caused, apologize and agree -- often in a written contract -- to make amends.
Through the process, both sides -- as well as the community damaged by the crime -- theoretically are "restored."
"The criminal justice system tends to say, 'OK, we've punished the guy, sayonara,' "said Todd R. Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "But while punishment is important, many victims feel it's not enough. They need closure. They need to hear why he did it and see some kind of indication that the offender gets it. Restorative justice offers them that."
O'Reilly's unwitting acquaintance with the concept began on a rural Sonoma County road one misty April evening in 2004. With one of the family cars sidelined for repairs, her husband, Danny, had offered to bicycle the 30 miles to work that day.
Curly haired and 5 feet 8, the 43-year-old was a doting father with a knack for storytelling and a passion for playing Twister with his daughters, Erin and Siobhan. He remembered everyone's name, loved Halloween, played the cello and was famous for his homemade soups.
Setting out for home that April day, Danny O'Reilly was well-equipped for the ride -- with flashing safety lights, a bright yellow jacket, a helmet and a headlamp. It wasn't enough. Rounding a bend on a two-lane road at dusk, he was struck from behind by a pickup truck, his body sent flying 25 feet, over a guardrail and into a patch of weeds. He died instantly.
Late that night, Patty O'Reilly and the girls arrived home to a dark house. After tucking them in, she brushed her teeth and headed for bed, assuming Danny was there. Instead she found no sign of him, and began to fight a creeping sense of dread.
Before long, the sheriff's deputy had arrived, a priest was on the way and a man who had been driving home from a bar with a blood-alcohol level almost three times the legal limit was under arrest.
In the beginning O'Reilly would simply sit on the floor and cry. For a time, she felt crippled, her walk an awkward shuffle. Sleep was futile, disturbed by visions of Danny's body and the wheels of a truck.
The garden -- so meticulously tended by her husband -- became overrun with weeds. After friends and family stopped supplying casseroles, O'Reilly hauled the girls to local delicatessens, too shattered to cook. Her 13th wedding anniversary came and went, another agonizing reminder of the loss.
Meanwhile, William Michael Albertson, 47, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. With a former felony conviction on his record, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Case closed.
For a time, O'Reilly hated the man who killed her husband. She wanted the cell door slammed and never reopened. She wanted him to spend every waking moment agonizing over what he had done.
"I hated him," O'Reilly recalled. "I really thought he was the scum of the earth. Worse than scum."
DEVASTATED: Patty O’Reilly, whose husband was killed by a drunk driver, with daughters Erin, left, and Siobhan, right. (Robert Durell / LAT)
Then she saw Albertson at the sentencing hearing. Clearly distraught, he wept throughout. At the end, he stood, apologized and said he hoped that someday he might be forgiven.
O'Reilly read the report on Albertson's background, prepared for the court. His childhood, she learned, was full of unspeakable abuse. It was easy to see why he might become an alcoholic, she said, to escape a past filled with so much pain.
Finally, she thought about the anger riding around inside of her, day in and day out. She worried that it might corrode her relationship with her young daughters, struggling themselves to find their footing, to make a new life without a father.
She also remembered her faith. "I had to let go of all that negativity," she said. "I happen to be a Catholic, but whether you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim, it comes down to the same thing, love and forgiveness."
"It's not excusing -- he did this thing and he needs to suffer the consequences, because we sure as heck are suffering the consequences. But at some point I just had to acknowledge that he is not a monster." And so, in her heart, Patty O'Reilly forgave William Albertson. She would have left it at that. But another stage in her journey was yet to come.
Bruised and Dazed
Crime victims and survivors have achieved remarkable things over the last three decades. Their rights are now recognized under the law. Victims may make a statement in court at sentencing. Many states, including California, grant them privileges at parole hearings, such as the chance to protest an inmate's release from afar, by videotape.
But true services for victims -- counseling and restitution, for instance -- are stretched thin. And many say they feel bruised, dazed and, on the whole, dissatisfied once the judges, juries and prosecutors have disposed of their cases.
For some, restorative justice is an appealing answer.
While its theoretical roots stretch back centuries, the modern movement's birth is typically traced to Ontario, Canada, in 1974. Four years later, the first formal reconciliation work was underway in this country.
Since then, hundreds of programs -- some run by government, some by nonprofit groups or religious organizations -- have sprouted. Most focus on juvenile cases and largely involve nonviolent crimes. Mediation can occur either as a substitute for prosecution, or post-sentencing. It is voluntary and requires both parties' consent.
Recently, a growing number of states have begun offering restorative justice to victims of crimes by adults. California has small programs at two adult prisons -- San Quentin and Solano State Prison in Vacaville -- but no immediate plans to expand.
Some critics say reconciliation amounts to coddling criminals, believing it might allow them to shorten their prison terms. In fact, parole boards may look favorably upon a convict's participation, but there is no formal benefit beyond that.
Other victims, especially those who have suffered through violent crime, say the idea of coming face to face with the perpetrator is abhorrent. Their preference is a long prison term and a quickly fading memory of a life-altering event.
But a growing body of research shows that participants in the mediated encounters -- victims as well as offenders -- report strong satisfaction with the outcome. Studies also conclude that lawbreakers who complete the process are less likely to offend again.
"Some people mistakenly think restorative justice is some liberal way of letting offenders get off easy, but it really demands much greater accountability," said Mark Umbreit, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking.
"I'm not saying it's some magic bullet. But there's some pretty good data showing it does at least as much good as the costly, dysfunctional approach we're using now."
A Daughter's Request
You never know how a child will handle the death of a parent.
One day, Siobhan O'Reilly sat down and made a card for the man who killed her father. She drew a picture of her face, with tears streaming. She wrote: My name is Siobhan. I am 8 years old. I'm not mad at you.
Along with writing to Albertson, the little girl made a request: I want to meet him.
Her mother was taken aback. What did it mean? She has a theory.
For his daughters, Danny O'Reilly's death in some ways was an intangible thing. They weren't allowed to see his body; they never saw his battered bike. They did not attend the court hearings. In a sense, the only living proof of their father's fate is locked in a cell at the California Medical Facility, a state prison in Vacaville.
O'Reilly is a mother who takes her children's comments to heart. Arranging a meeting -- even if it were possible -- might not be wise, she figured. Still, "I didn't want to ignore it," she said.
Soon O'Reilly was learning about restorative justice and a woman named Rochelle Edwards. A trained mediator, Edwards was just beginning a program at San Quentin, bringing in surrogate victims to meet with inmates studying the impact of their crimes.
Edwards suggested O'Reilly give it a try. Down the road, if it felt OK, Edwards said they might take another step -- toward a meeting with Albertson.
O'Reilly agreed. Perhaps, she thought, this was a way to do something positive with her husband's death -- and acknowledge her daughter's questions.
"When I went to San Quentin," she said, "I really didn't know what to expect. I knew my assignment: to tell my story. But I was totally unprepared for what happened."
The eight men in prison blues thought they were ready. After 15 weeks in class with Edwards, they had covered a lot of ground. They had written essays about shame and guilt. They had mapped out how many victims their acts had truly claimed -- not just the person they harmed, but that person's children and parents and siblings and colleagues, and on and on.
But none of the men knew how deeply they'd be touched by O'Reilly's words. Patrick Mims, 43, cradled his head in his hands as O'Reilly -- her voice just above a whisper -- recounted the empty house, her sense of dread, her wailing when the deputy broke the news.
"I just think of her daughters, without a father, and I think of what a deep, loving relationship they had," said Mims, who has two children of his own. "It's right there in your face.... It's devastating."
Mims represents the other side of the restorative justice equation. Convicted of second-degree murder in 1989, he is serving 15 years to life, with the possibility of parole.
His crime capped years as a user and seller of crack cocaine, a life that began when he ran away from his Berkeley home at age 13. One night in San Diego, trying to buy dope with a buddy, he wound up in a fight, stabbed a man named Kevin Anderson and fled. Four days later, Mims learned that Anderson had died. He turned himself in.
In prison, he has become a certified electrician and plumber and obtained his associate of arts degree. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous have been a constant in his life. The parole board tells him he's on the right track.
After spending long hours in the restorative justice class, Mims wrote a letter to his victim's parents, apologizing for taking their son from them. He sent it to the San Diego County district attorney last January, hoping it might be forwarded. He has not received a response.
But the most wrenching moment was the visit from O'Reilly, who joined two other victims for a four-hour encounter in a small, stuffy room overlooking the prison's exercise yard. The victims spoke. Then the inmates -- one by one -- shared the violent, intimate details of their crimes.
One of the convicts then added this: I am truly amazed and humbled, he told the victims, that after all your pain you have come here to talk to people like us.
Tears fell on the prison's concrete floor. For a while afterward, there was only breathing. Nobody said a word.
A pair of men's tennis shoes sit by the front door of the O'Reillys' small Sonoma home. The man who wore them is gone, but his wife can't bear to move them just yet. The same goes for his clothes in the closet they once shared, and his two spare bicycles, hanging in the garage.
At a wedding, Patty O'Reilly watched the beaming bride dance with her father and realized her girls won't have that chance.
But some parts of life are growing brighter. Friends replanted the family garden, and O'Reilly now enjoys snipping dead blooms off the marigolds. Her daughters predict the pumpkin plant will yield a big crop by Halloween.
O'Reilly also is thinking ahead, imagining a drive through rolling hills to the prison in Vacaville where William Albertson sits and waits.
She has decided. Sometime next year, she will meet with the man who took her husband from this world.
Follow-up story below
Talking through the pain
By Jenifer Warren
Los Angeles Times
February 17, 2007
Folsom, Calif. — IT'S a warm, cloudless day and Patty O'Reilly is about to meet the man who killed her husband. A million thoughts compete for attention in her head. Two stand out.
Why am I here?
What good will it do?
It has taken O'Reilly 29 months to get to this emotional state, to the point where she can walk on sturdy legs into a maximum-security prison and face a convict who blasted a giant crater in her life.
In the beginning, O'Reilly felt only loathing for the man. She was too wracked by loss to consider anything else.
But gradually she became aware of the possibility, however slight, of finding some useful purpose in her grief. That's why she is here today, in the belly of the state prison at Folsom, with a water bottle, rosary beads and her sister at her side.
Soon a door will swing open, and inmate No. T22186, a man named Mike Albertson, will appear in his prison blues. The two will sit face to face — victim and victimizer — and talk. What comes out of it is up to them.
The encounter is a first for the California correctional system. Minnesota, Texas and other states have encouraged such dialogues, but California — its prisons beset by overcrowding and countless other woes — is arriving late to the game.
O'Reilly, a petite, dark-haired woman of 41, is a willing pioneer. Through her sorrow, she has become a believer in restorative justice, the philosophy underlying her meeting today. To heal, she says, survivors of crime need something beyond the punishments the courts dispense: the chance to hear the truth about what happened to their loved ones and "the empowering opportunity" to look the offender in the eye.
The goal for offenders, meanwhile, is a flesh-and-blood understanding of the harm they have caused.
"When you put a real face on the crime and hold them accountable, there's no escaping the impact," says Rochelle Edwards, a mediator from the state's Office of Victim and Survivor Services. Then, she adds, convicts "connect the dots in their own lives" to learn what set them on a criminal path.
"After that, they can't go back," she says. "They have too many insights, too many tools, to offend again."
O'Reilly's trust in the process is strong. But on this September morning, she has no real idea what lies ahead.
Nor does Albertson, 49, the unwelcome intruder in O'Reilly's life. He has spent months awaiting this day. Abandoned by family and friends, he has had no visitors since he was sent to prison in September 2004. His health is poor, and his remaining 12 years behind bars stretch before him.
What good will come from revisiting this crime? What can he possibly say or do to make amends?
"I used to think a great deal of myself, before all this," Albertson says. "And now I am a person who has done something unimaginable, something so heinous. The pain, fear, sadness and guilt surrounding that are just overwhelming sometimes."
THE event that knit these lives together happened on a spring evening in 2004, in the heart of Northern California's wine country. Riding his bicycle home from work, Danny O'Reilly was struck from behind by a pickup truck. In an instant, his life ended at 43.
At first, his widow felt she could not go on. Only the needs of her two children, themselves overcome with grief, kept her trudging forward.
Eventually, she resumed work as director of a dance studio and struggled to reassemble her life. Albertson, who had been driving drunk, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a prison term of 14 years. But Patty O'Reilly came to crave a different sort of justice, a more direct expression of accountability from the man who had altered her world.
Two years later, her day begins early, at the modest home in Sonoma she shares with daughters Erin, 15, and Siobhan, 10. After a long drive, she and her sister, Mary Eble, arrive at the prison east of Sacramento. Edwards is with them.
For months Edwards has been preparing O'Reilly and Albertson for their meeting — unearthing possible land mines, suggesting how both might find meaning in their unexpected relationship. Today, she will guide the conversation, provide support. "A human guardrail," she calls herself.
The warden meets the trio at the prison gate, offering his welcome and a warm handshake. At the first security stop, officers search the visitors' belongings, almost apologetically. Word of O'Reilly's purpose here has spread.
O'Reilly removes her white tennis shoes and crosses through the metal detector. After a short van ride, and two more security checks, the three women arrive at their destination, a small, windowless conference room. The lights are bright, and Edwards does not like the feel of the place, pronouncing it cramped. But it is a prison, and there are no options.
O'Reilly sits in one of five chairs around the table's edge. Four water bottles are lined up near her, beside a box of tissue. She takes a bite of an apple, then rests her head on both hands and takes three deep, audible breaths.
A low rumble and the clank of doors signal a possible arrival, but it's a false alarm. As the wait drags on, O'Reilly thumbs through a folder of family photos with her sister and begins to cry.
Finally, an officer escorts Albertson in and sits beside him at the table. O'Reilly searches the convict's worn face. Albertson, whose graying brown hair is cropped short, swallows hard and nods a nervous hello.
"Let's take one minute to bring ourselves here," Edwards says, her calm voice a small ripple in the still pond.
O'Reilly bows her head and prays.
Gently, Edwards sets the dialogue in motion, establishing ground rules. There is no interrupting — if you want to say something, write it down so you don't forget — and no abusive language allowed.
O'Reilly fixes a level gaze on Albertson and tells him it is her younger daughter who prompted her to come. The child expressed curiosity about the man who killed her father; thus was born O'Reilly's interest in restorative justice and the healing it might bring.
O'Reilly's daughter has made two cards for Albertson. Her mom pulls out one, decorated with a smiley face surrounded by a heart, and reads it aloud:
Dear Mr. Albertson:
Today is the 16th of August and I will be 10 years old on September first. I just want to make sure you know that I forgive you. I do still miss my dad; I think that's a life-long thing. I hope you're feeling O.K.
Albertson blows out a heavy sigh, and silence again overtakes the room. Finally, Edwards speaks, asking the convict how the card makes him feel. His reply seeps out slowly, barely rising above a whisper:
"It almost feels fragile, you know? The resiliency of a child is incredible. The willingness to forgive is incredible."
O'Reilly nods, and then describes for Albertson the chain of events he triggered.
She talks of her initial hatred toward him, of her belief early on that he should rot forever behind bars. In a low voice that breaks with sobs but never swells with anger, she describes the reminders that punctuate her days — the special songs on the radio, the sight of a bicyclist on the road, the graduations, first communions and other occasions now shared by three instead of four.
Recalling the day her husband was killed, she relates in painstaking detail their last exchange of words, the fear that descended when he didn't come home, the horror when a sheriff's deputy arrived at the house, her daughters' expressions as she gave them the news.
As part of a new program of restorative justice, Patty O'Reilly, back to camera meets face-to-face with the man, William Michael Albertson, left, who killed her husband more than two years ago. On the right is Rochelle Edwards who was working for the state's Office of Victim Survivor Services.(Robert Durell / LAT)
frozen, his face contorted.
"Forgive me," he says when O'Reilly finishes, his voice cracking. "I know the tragedy I've caused. I can see it. I don't know how to fix it — I'm left with no way to fix it. I just have to feel it."
O'Reilly keeps her moist eyes trained on his face. "Some days all I can do is feel the pain too," she says. "There is no fixing."
Two hours have passed in the windowless room.
In the months before his encounter with O'Reilly, Albertson made a shocking confession to Edwards: I may have hit him on purpose.
For some, this information — that the death on that Sonoma County road may not have been accidental — would have changed everything. O'Reilly took a few days with the news, and came to a different conclusion.
"The thought of turning back and becoming angry and spiteful just seemed so draining," she recalled. "I didn't have that kind of energy in my life. I decided it was better to stay on this path."
At their meeting, this difficult topic comes up. O'Reilly tells Albertson that she believes it took courage for him to make that admission, and that "of the two of us, in my opinion, you've got the tougher row to hoe."
"We both wake up and Danny's not there," she continues, "but I don't have to live with knowing I took his life…. You've taken full responsibility. Maybe this is a chance to redeem yourself."
Albertson looks down, his shoulders slumped. Then, haltingly, he shares his story — what happened on the road that day, and what came before.
He talks of five years of sexual abuse at the hands of his father, of buried memories and stifled rage, of drug addiction, 14 years of sobriety, a broken back, a fateful relapse. The night of the accident, he was out of medication and desperate for relief from pain. No one, he says, would help, so he sat in his truck and drank.
Intoxicated, he called his girlfriend for a ride, but she was disgusted and told him a DUI arrest would serve him right. Angry, he took to the highway, to check himself in to a hospital in St. Helena. Along the way, on curving Mark West Springs Road, he saw a bicyclist.
"Everything was jumbled," he says, as O'Reilly sits riveted by his words. "There is a part of me that remembers swerving toward Danny…. There's a part of me that remembers hitting the guardrail. I sat in the truck, I was bleeding. The CHP came and I faked like I had a gun…. I wanted to get shot."
After a hushed moment, Albertson continues. The stranger on the bike, he concludes, paid a price for a lifetime of rage against a father who raped him and a mother who didn't stop it.
"Does this give me an excuse to do what I did?" he asks. "No."
NEARLY four hours have gone by, and it is time for this unlikely duo to reach an agreement. O'Reilly asks Albertson to remain active in Alcoholics Anonymous, to continue therapy and to share his story so it may dissuade others inclined to drink and drive. He says he will.
O'Reilly then opens a photo album, showing Albertson shots of her husband's headstone, followed by a parade of pictures depicting his rich, happy life. The convict thumbs through them slowly, carefully, for a long time.
How do you feel? Edwards asks.
"Looking at those pictures," he replies, "it was such a wonderful life. And what happened is so tragic. It's my responsibility."
"Don't feel sorry for yourself and go backward," O'Reilly cautions, her voice turning stern.
"No," he says, "I've got that real clear."
O'Reilly, left (in red), holds hands in a circle with Albertson, right. He feels uplifted by O’Reilly’s willingness to meet him, and calls her forgiveness ”an incredible, humbling gift.” She's accompanied by her sister Mary Eble (on O'Reilly's left), and the meeting's facilitator, Rochelle Edwards, bottom. (Robert Durell / LAT)
The two exchange rosaries, and O'Reilly gives the convict a bracelet from her younger daughter. He fingers it gingerly, appearing locked in a trance.
Edwards, attempting to sum up the day's journey, offers a bit of wisdom. The goal, she says, is to make some meaning out of the catastrophe that united these lives — "not sense, but meaning."
They part. As she passes back through the cyclone fence topped with coiled razor wire, O'Reilly recalls the words of a Catholic nun who ministers to prisoners in Mexico:
Forgiving is hard, but not forgiving is harder.
A week passes. O'Reilly says she feels lighter, unburdened. The encounter has also left her feeling empowered, which she did not expect.
What happened in that room, she says, was true justice, "participatory justice." It may sound petty, she adds, but she drew strength from watching her husband's killer sit at that table and witness the devastation he caused.
"If I have to feel this horrible and struggle to find meaning in this loss, I want to make sure he is struggling — and working on problems he used to deny," she says.
Albertson's feelings in the aftermath, he confides, are "up and down and sideways." He is emotionally drained, frequently depressed. But he feels uplifted by O'Reilly's willingness to meet him, and calls her forgiveness "an incredible, humbling gift."
The convict is wearing the bracelet made by the little girl in Sonoma. Those cards she sent are on display right beside his bed.
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