Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The promise and perils of restorative justice

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Eli Hager has a fascinating account of a family in Jacksonville and their experience with restorative justice:

On Sept. 12, 2018, the five adult children of Debbie Liles waited in the prosecutor’s office in Jacksonville, Florida, to meet the man who one year earlier had bludgeoned their mother to death with a golf club.

Michelle, 38, had brought what she called her “madwoman” binder of colorfully highlighted police reports about the murder. Have you seen the crime-scene photos of our mom’s brain leaking onto her kitchen floor? she wanted to ask. Because we have. So you should too.

Sitting on a windowsill, Dana, 42, clutched a framed poster of a space shuttle that she planned to show the man. On the back, Debbie, a grandmother of eight, had written a note to one of Dana’s sons, who struggled with loneliness as a boy. “This picture makes me think of you so much,” she wrote, “a rocket shooting up to God.”

Their brother Gerald, 34, the philosopher of the family, sat thinking about a court document he’d read that detailed the perpetrator’s childhood. Repeatedly abandoned as a toddler with no food for days at a time. Found wandering on a highway at age 4. Sibling died in a house fire. Sexually abused, whipped with extension cords, placed in more than 20 different foster homes. Attempted suicide at age 13 because, he said, “nobody wanted him.” Gerald wanted to believe that this man was just broken, not beyond repair. Your life has value, he hoped to tell him.

After a while, their father, Mike, joined them and their other siblings, Rachel, 43, and Rockey, 26. Wearing his Sunday suit, Mike could hardly keep his head up as he walked through security—the violent killing of his wife of 41 years had hobbled him physically and mentally. He placed his tattered King James Bible on the conveyor belt, planning to read a passage to her murderer, perhaps from Matthew 5:39: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” More than anything, Mike wanted answers. Even after a police investigation and a year of pretrial hearings, he was plagued by questions. Did you have an accomplice? Did Debbie try to get away? Why us?

The defendant had agreed to tell Mike and his family everything about the murder and to plead guilty. In return, he would be spared the death penalty and instead spend his life in prison—but only if the Lileses felt satisfied that he had told the truth. This arrangement, brokered by Jacksonville’s newly elected state attorney, was essentially unprecedented in the history of homicide prosecutions in the United States.

acksonville, the murder capital of Florida, seems an unlikely place to find a more merciful response to homicide. Under the leadership of Angela Corey, the state attorney there from 2009 through 2016, hundreds of children—disproportionately Black children—were charged as adults, and more people were sent to death row than in nearly any other jurisdiction in the country. She once made national headlines for charging a 12-year-old boy with first-degree murder, prompting a cover story in The Nation headlined “Is Angela Corey the Cruelest Prosecutor in America?”

In the 2016 election, Corey was ousted by Melissa Nelson, a younger and significantly more charismatic Republican, who campaigned on a platform of being “tough but fair.” Hardly one of the so-called progressive prosecutors promising to reduce punishments for crimes in places like PhiladelphiaChicago, and San Francisco, she supports the death penalty and has boasted about her record of putting away “drug traffickers, robbers, rapists, and murderers,” including a man who chopped a couple to death with an ax.

Yet Nelson, the daughter of a sheriff’s deputy, is a believer in alternative sentencing. During her campaign, she used the example of three children stealing a loaf of bread to explain to a local newspaper why she rejected one-size-fits-all punishments: “One steals because he was dared, one because he’s hungry, and one because he thinks it would be fun.” When we met, she chatted unguardedly about racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. She also welcomed an ongoing MacArthur Foundation study of her office—and publicized its first wave of data in December 2018—despite the finding that some of the lawyers who worked for her were “defensive about race.” Although Florida would have the highest incarceration rate in the world if it were a country, almost a third of Nelson’s staff believed that the courts were “too lenient on defendants.”

One of the cases that she took over from Corey was the 2013 murder of Shelby Farah, a 20-year-old of Arab descent who was shot in the head during a robbery at the cellphone store where she worked. It took only days for police to arrest a suspect, a 21-year-old Black man named James Rhodes, but the trial was delayed for years as Corey pursued a death sentence against the wishes of Farah’s mother, Darlene.

At first, Darlene Farah had wanted to sneak a gun into court to kill Rhodes herself. She knew that death-penalty cases could drag on for years, often tearing victims’ families apart and rarely providing closure. But after what she learned from a former FBI agent she had hired to investigate Rhodes’s past, she decided that he didn’t deserve to be executed. From the time he was a baby, Rhodes lived with his grandmother—his mother had abandoned him, and his father was periodically imprisoned. The bus driver who took him to day care reported that the boy would often cry from hunger. At a group home where he spent much of his childhood, he was sexually abused by another boy and by a counselor.

Farah wanted to tell Rhodes that although his history did not justify his crime, she in many ways saw him as a victim too. She repeatedly asked the prosecutor’s office to let her talk with him in person—something that is rarely done in murder cases—but Farah said Corey denied every request. When Nelson took office, eager to resolve the three-year-old case, she dropped the death penalty against Rhodes and reluctantly agreed to let Farah and her family meet with him.

The conversation lasted an hour. Farah asked Rhodes . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2020 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Law

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