It has been nearly 30 years since two 15-year-old boys killed my daughter, Cathy.
One of those misguided teens, Gary Brown, was released from prison approximately six years ago. As we observe National Victim Rights Awareness Week through Saturday (April 16), I am grateful that Gary has a new chance to live a productive life and want to see the same for other youths who make serious mistakes but grow, change and prove that they are ready to be reintegrated into society.
I also am reminded of the importance of restorative justice efforts that can bring offenders face to face with the people they have harmed and can lead to healing for everyone involved. Over the coming months and years, people who were sentenced as children or youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole will be considered for parole or sentencing adjustments. This is the result of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which found that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon kids. It is my hope that restorative justice, counseling and other needed services can become available to all family members of victims.
Cathy died in November of 1986. She and the man she was dating had just returned from an out-of-state trip when they dropped by our home for dinner so that Cathy could introduce him to her father and me. After they left, my husband and I realized that Cathy’s fiancé was the son of the doctor who was her pediatrician when we lived in Colorado. Although it was late, I could not wait to tell Cathy, so I phoned her. It was our last conversation.
Two days later, we learned she had been killed. Gary and the other boy arrested and charged in her death were certified to stand trial as adults. I was initially pleased when they both were sentenced to long terms in prison.
Losing Cathy transformed my life. It led me to study death, dying, grief and loss. I also focused on my family’s healing rather than revenge.
After a few years, I read about restorative justice. Once I understood more about our justice system and that restorative justice is a different model, it changed me and how I felt about sentencing and redemption. I realized that our system of accountability too often responds to violence with more violence. In contrast, restorative justice is non-violent. It assures accountability by offering offenders face-to-face meetings with the families whose lives have been devastated by their actions, if those families so choose and all are adequately prepared. For many victims, the greatest healing comes through this interaction. And it is not easy for offenders. Many have told me that the most difficult thing they have ever done is sit across from the people they have harmed, even more difficult than serving time in prison
I eventually earned a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. In time, I would teach college courses on these topics for Sam Houston State University, both in prison and on campus. I also became an advocate for banning life without parole and other extreme sentences for children. Currently, I participate in a victim-offender encounter program in prisons. As a person of faith, I consider this my personal ministry.
Thankfully, there is growing momentum for reform. Opinion leaders and policymakers as diverse as President Carter, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, conservative columnist George Will and Pope Francis have called for changes in the ways we hold children accountable.
I believe people can change, especially people who have done things as a child. As any parent knows, children and teens often make bad decisions. This is because their brains are not yet fully developed and they lack the capacity to think through the long-term impacts of their actions. This is compounded for children who have been exposed to traumas such as abuse and neglect, which is the sad reality for many of the children who face these sentences. Gary and I first met 15 years ago in a mediated dialogue. I discovered a young man whose early life had been one of abuse and neglect, a world apart from that of my childhood and that of my children. Though he offered no excuses for his actions, what he told me helped me to understand how he could have committed such a tragic deed and enabled me to place my daughter’s murder in a larger context. His total remorse was an incredibly healing encounter for me.
I was pleased when Gary was released from prison in 2009 as part of an effort to ease prison overcrowding. He had served 23 years of a 54-year sentence. He is a remarkably different person than he was as a teenager. He is proof that young people, even those who have done horrible things, can transform. Gary continues to demonstrate that he is deeply sorry for the pain he caused, and I am doing all that I can to help others like him when they leave prison.
Dr. Linda While lives in Magnolia, Texas.
April 15, 2016