The Restoration of Faith

How we might strive for a broader understanding of retribution

01 February, 2013

ON A RECENT WEEKEND I picked up the New York Times that is delivered in a blue polythene bag outside my door each morning, and read a story about a young man who had fatally shot his girlfriend during a fight. The young man’s name was Conor McBride and the victim’s name was Ann Margaret Grosmaire. Both were 19 when this happened, in March 2010, in Tallahassee, Florida.

The reporter, Paul Tullis, introduced an early note about what made the story unusual. Ann’s father, Andy Grosmaire, standing next to his “intubated and unconscious” daughter in hospital, heard her say before her death, “Forgive him.” Conor, when he was booked, was asked to provide the names of five people who could visit him in jail. He included the name of Ann’s mother, Kate Grosmaire. Talking to the reporter who had written the story, Kate explained her desire to go and see Conor in prison, “Before this happened, I loved Conor. I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment—as a murderer—I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.”

The state attorney’s office had charged Conor McBride with first-degree murder; this meant that he was likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. (As the case didn’t have any aggravating circumstances, like prior convictions or the victim being a child, the prosecutors were probably not likely to seek the death penalty.) But Ann’s parents told the assistant state attorney that they didn’t want Conor to spend the rest of his life in prison. The concept that the Grosmaires had embraced, together with Conor’s parents, Julie and Michael McBride, was that of “restorative justice”, a not very widely known practice based on the idea of victim–offender dialogue.

Where the report took a turn for me is that the lawyer they hired to facilitate this process was a woman named Sujatha Baliga. The reporter had mentioned that Baliga was born in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, the child of Indian immigrants. As I read her name and then a few more lines about her, I wanted to ask Baliga a question about India.

Baliga told me that the significance of restorative justice lay in “community-based processes that hold people who harm directly accountable to the people that they’ve harmed.” There was great faith invested there in face-to-face dialogue and participatory decision-making. Paraphrasing Howard Zehr, a pioneer in the field of restorative justice, Baliga said that rather than asking the traditional justice system questions of “What law was broken? Who broke it? How should we punish them?” the approach she was advocating asked instead, “What harm has been done? What needs have arisen? Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?” Evidence of this shift was present in the actions of the Grosmaires and the McBrides. They had each sought to honor the memory of Ann Grosmaire.

Even approaching Baliga couldn’t have been easy for the Grosmaires and the McBrides. Restorative justice cases have usually involved burglaries or property disputes—not violent crimes, and certainly not homicides. To add to this, Florida is considered a law-and-order state with a strong leaning toward punitive justice. But Baliga facilitated a meeting in June 2011 in the jail where Conor was incarcerated. At that conference, Ann’s parents spoke first, talking of the young woman’s childhood and her dreams. They told the young man who had killed their daughter about the pain he had caused. Then, Conor told them the story of how he and Ann had been fighting for 38 hours. Conor told the group, “What I did was inexcusable. There is no why, there are no excuses, there is no reason.”

Earlier, while reading the report in the New York Times I had been struck by the fact that Conor had made such an honest and open admission at the meeting. But it wasn’t until I had my exchanges with Baliga that I learned that Conor’s statement had not—rather, could not—have been a spontaneous process. Baliga told me that helping Conor remember the details of the crime so that he would be prepared to answer the Grosmaires’ questions had been “heartbreaking”. The young man appeared to be experiencing what Baliga called “participatory traumatic stress” and he “couldn’t remember many of the details of Ann’s last moments.” At the conference meeting, however, he came clean, telling Ann’s parents the story of how he and Ann had been fighting for two days; in person, by text, and over the phone. Ann was on her knees, her hand raised to stop him, when he fired. It had been difficult, and understandably painful, for the dead woman’s parents to hear this account. In fact, everyone involved in the process found it difficult, including the lawyers. Baliga said that it was “always challenging to get people in the traditional system to understand what we are doing—explaining it to jail staff, to the prosecutor, to the defense attorney.”

When the meeting was over, Baliga asked the Grosmaires what they wanted. Ann’s mother said that he should get a five to 15-year term, and her father said ten to 15 years. Conor’s parents agreed. The assistant state attorney was asked to speak. He didn’t suggest a punishment, pointing out that even a statement like that required consideration. Later, he wrote to the Grosmaires and said that he was going to offer Conor a choice: 20 years in prison plus ten years probation, or 25 years in prison. Conor has chosen the former.

In the New York Times, Tullis had written that the Grosmaires said that they didn’t forgive Conor for his sake, but their own. Ann’s mother told Tullis, “Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.” For his part, Conor told Tullis, “With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness, I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” If he had simply been turned into an enemy, he could have escaped the human contract, but by accepting him, the Grosmaires had drawn him into the circle of obligation. He was going to have to do good enough for two.

In my discussion with Baliga, I came to the question I had been meaning to ask her the moment I finished reading the piece by Tullis. I asked Baliga about the recent gang rape of the young woman in a moving bus in Delhi. The entire society had been galvanised and was demanding justice. The victim’s family has demanded that the perpetrators be hanged. In such circumstances, would Baliga still want to advocate restorative justice?

Baliga’s answer was a forthright no. She explained that “restorative justice is a voluntary process, and is best when driven by the desires of the victims. The victims in this case have been clear—the woman from her deathbed, and her father now—that they want the death penalty. The family has said they don’t want to see the young men who did this. So this is not an appropriate case for restorative justice.”

Having said that, Baliga added that she was opposed to the death penalty. And that more information was needed about the men involved before a recommendation could be made about how long they ought to remain inside prison. She doubted that the penal system had the capacity to “rehabilitate this level of sexualized violence”, in part because she believes that such behavior “comes from either some mental health issues or a history of unthinkable trauma that is being passed on to others.” What was key now, far greater than simply wanting to hang the men now, was “to get to the roots of how these horrors happened.”

Tullis’s report in the New York Times had introduced Baliga by telling readers that she was a former public defender who was now the director of the restorative justice project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Tullis had also written that “from as far back as Baliga can remember, she was sexually abused by her father.” As a teen, she was dyeing her hair and cutting herself. Later, while studying at Harvard, she wanted to become a prosecutor and lock up child molesters. During a visit to India, she got a chance to meet the Dalai Lama, from whom she sought advice about how she could go on with her work on the behalf of the oppressed without having anger as her motivating force. The Dalai Lama advised Baliga to meditate and then asked her to align herself with the enemy. Baliga wasn’t prepared to follow the second part of his advice, but after checking into a meditation course she found herself freed from rage and a desire for revenge.

In her response to my question about the gang rape in Delhi, Baliga made a point that I hadn’t encountered in other discussions about that violent crime. She said that “the rampant degree of sexual abuse and exploitation of children—and how it’s utterly underreported and under-addressed—is likely at the root of this kind of horror.”

Sexual abuse isn’t a subject that is talked about much. I asked Baliga how she had found the strength to do what she had done. She said that she had found tremendous support from her elder sister. Her Akka was the first person in whom Baliga had confided when she was 16, and her sister had believed her and got her help. Baliga said that she would not be alive today had it not been for her sister. Then told me that she felt she couldn’t remain silent about what had happened to her. “If my story causes a single parent to say, ‘Hmmm, maybe that’s what’s happening to our child,’ or causes a single adult survivor to feel less alone, to come out and seek help, then I am happy.”

“In India, one in two children are sexually abused,” Baliga said. Over half of those are boys. If they haven’t suffered from sexual abuse, then it is likely to have been what she called “other cumulative trauma”. This would include witnessing domestic violence in the home, or being beaten or starved by their caregivers. “These are the kinds of things I have seen in the lives of the people I know who’ve grown up to commit the worst of the worst crimes,” Baliga said. She wasn’t saying this to excuse in any way the criminals who raped and murdered the 23-year-old physiotherapist. They should be held accountable, of course. “But I want a part of the road to healing to look at the individual and societal norms that gave rise to this,” she said, “instead of satisfying ourselves with the fiction that executing these young people or incarcerating them is doing anything to end the rampant sexual violence that is happening every single day.”