By Cathy Resmer
new victim- offender dialogue program offers a unique opportunity
to heal after violent crime
about heartbreaking violent crimes have dominated the local
media this fall, prompting many Vermonters to wonder how the
families of the victims will ever be able to move on. Linda
White, whose daughter was raped and murdered in Texas 20 years
ago, knows from experience that it’s never easy.
White, an adjunct professor of psychology and philosophy at
Sam Houston State University, visited Vermont recently to
talk about her own family’s incredible journey of healing.
In a recent interview before her presentation at the Barre
Opera House, White recalls the tragic beginning of her ordeal.
It started on Nov. 18, 1986, when her 26-year-old daughter,
Cathy, went missing. White, a down-to-earth “60-something”
Louisiana native, describes her late daughter as a kind-hearted,
vivacious woman. She had a 5-year-old daughter, Ami, and had
recently discovered she was two months pregnant; she and the
baby’s father had just announced their engagement.
When her daughter didn’t return that night, White hoped that
maybe she just needed some time alone. Maybe she was getting
cold feet about the wedding, or had decided not to have the
baby. “Of course,” she says, “if you have the choice of believing
that something horrible has happened to your child, or believing
that she’s away thinking about something for a while, you’re
going to take option B and not option A.”
Several days later, the waiting ended. On Nov. 22, a police
officer knocked on White’s door to tell her and her husband
that their daughter’s body had been found in a field. Linda
White wasn’t home to hear the news. She was out doing errands
the time I got home, four hours later,” she recalls, “everybody
was there: our friends, her friends.” As White approached
the house, she could see cars through the trees along the
family’s winding driveway. “That’s how I knew,” she says quietly,
“when I saw all the cars. I knew there wouldn’t be all those
cars there if they didn’t know anything.”
White drove up to the house to let her granddaughter out,
but couldn’t bring herself to leave the car. “I knew as soon
as she got into the house, everybody would know I was there,
and somebody would come out and tell me,” she explains. “I
couldn’t go in. I couldn’t move. It just was crushing.”
White’s husband and one of their two sons emerged from the
house to tell her. “My husband said, ‘It’s the worst you could
possibly imagine,’ ” she recalls. “I don’t remember the next
words. If he said, ‘She was raped,’ I don’t remember how he
Cathy had met two 15-year-old boys at a gas station and offered
them a ride. Once in the car, the boys, who were armed, led
her to a remote area, where they each raped her. Hoping to
cover up what they had done, they then shot her four times,
and tried to set her hair on fire with the car’s cigarette
It’s still hard for White to talk about this—she pauses frequently,
tears in her eyes—but she says discussing the crime has helped
her come to terms with it. In fact, one of the most important
conversations she’s had on the difficult subject was with
Gary Brown, one of Cathy’s killers.
In 2001, White and her granddaughter Ami traveled to a prison
in Wichita Falls, Texas, where they met with Brown and a trained
facilitator. The meeting, known as a “victim-offender mediation”—or,
more accurately, a “victim-offender dialogue”—lasted eight
hours. At the end, remarkably, all three exchanged hugs and
posed for a photo.
A film crew taped the emotional encounter, as well as interviews
with the participants before and after the process, for a
documentary called Meeting With a Killer: One Family’s
Journey. The film aired on Court TV in the fall of 2001,
and later received an Emmy nomination.
Several of Vermont’s 11 community-justice centers sponsored
screenings of the film last week in St. Johnsbury, Barre,
Brattleboro and White River Junction, and they brought White
to Vermont for post-screening discussions. The events commemorated
National Restorative Justice Week, which promotes ways in
which victims of crime can heal and offenders can repair some
of the damage they’ve done.
Coincidentally, the screenings took place as Vermont is launching
its own victim-offender dialogue program for people involved
in violent crimes, including armed robbery, rape, arson and
murder. The service has been occasionally available through
consultants, but for the first time, the Department of Corrections
will actually train facilitators—nine of them—during a six-day
session at the end of the month. Amy Holloway, Vermont’s director
of victim services, says the formal victim-offender dialogue
program should be operational by January.
White and other advocates of these encounters stress they’re
not appropriate for—or desired by—all victims. But they say
that confronting offenders in person can be cathartic. The
American Bar Association endorsed the practice in 1994. Printed
on the website of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program,
the ABA blessing states that the practice “humanizes” the
criminal justice system for offenders and victims alike. “By
bringing the criminal offenders together face-to-face with
their victims,” the ABA says, “it becomes more difficult for
the offenders to rationalize their criminal behavior. . .
. During such sessions, victims may gain a better understanding
of who the offenders are, and of the circumstances that may
have contributed to their criminal behavior.”
Victims of lower-level crimes have had this opportunity for
nearly a decade through Vermont’s many reparative boards.
The panels of volunteer community members see vandals, bullies
and noisemakers who may have been referred by the police.
They also deal with offenders on reparative probation, who
are required to meet with the board and complete community
service as part of their release. Victims are invited, but
not required, to attend these proceedings and offer input.
But the formal, facilitator-led victim-offender dialogues
take the process to a new level. Kathleen Patten, a consultant
for the DOC who has facilitated four of these victim-offender
dialogues in Vermont, is eager to see the state offer the
She believes conversations between victims and offenders can
offset the sometimes-harmful separation the two sides experience
during legal proceedings. “The court experience is really
tough for people,” she says. “A man-to-man isn’t allowed.
A victim takes that as, ‘If he cared, he wouldn’t have pled
for this, or pled for that.’ They’re protected so well—and
you can understand why.”
Patten describes the meetings she’s facilitated as “profound.”
“I think it’s valuable because when a victim is moving forward
in their life, or trying to move forward, often times there
is one last thing,” she says. “They feel this hole in their
whole body until they can ask certain questions—‘What has
happened since then?’ or it might be, ‘What were her last
words?’ ‘What happened those last few moments before?’ ‘What
could I have done that might have prevented it?’ ”
knows what it is that they feel,” she adds, “but they feel
it so strongly, that until they get that answer, they’re hanging
off the edge of a cliff. They need that answer.”
Linda White did not feel com pelled to talk with Cathy’s killers
until nearly 15 years after her daughter’s death. In the late
1980s, she returned to school to become a grief counselor.
She earned her Bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1990 and
her master’s in 1994, and then started teaching college classes.
She took those lessons, in psychology and philosophy, into
prisons and became an anti-death-penalty activist.
But she rarely thought about her daughter’s murderers until
she began researching victim-offender dialogues for her doctoral
dissertation. After interviewing several participants, White
realized this was an experience she desired herself.
wanted it so bad I could taste it,” she told an audience of
50 Vermonters after the film screening Nov. 16 at the Barre
Opera House. “One of the reasons I wanted it was because I
had taught so many offenders, and had been able to look at
so many offenders as human beings. There was a part of me
that wanted to know if I could do that with Gary. You know,
‘Am I who I think I am?’ ” For years she had found it too
painful to consider her daughter’s final hours, but now she
was ready—she realized she wanted to know more.
White’s granddaughter, then 20, had a similar question. She
wanted to know if her mother had spoken with the killers,
and if so, what she had said. Ami also wanted to make sure
Brown understood how difficult it had been for her to lose
her mother at such a young age.
When White began exploring the possibility of doing a victim-offender
dialogue, she learned that one of Cathy’s killers was in a
mental ward. Offenders who are mentally incompetent are unable
to participate in the process.
People involved in domestic disputes—even violent ones—may
not qualify, either. “In a domestic homicide,” Holloway says,
“the surviving family members would be able to have” a dialogue.
But, she clarifies, “It’s not to help people get together
to improve a relationship. It’s to answer questions that a
victim might have about a crime.”
Not every offender is willing to take responsibility for his
or her actions by facing a harmed person. Facilitators won’t
It turns out that Brown was willing to meet with the two women,
and to apologize for what he’d done. All three of them prepared
for several months beforehand; each met twice with the facilitator.
White and her granddaughter completed a “grief inventory”
in which they clarified their objectives and discussed their
expectations. The day before the meeting, the two women toured
the prison and saw a sample cell.
When the parties finally met around a table in a quiet room
at the prison, everyone immediately began to cry. The 15-year-old
boy had become a childlike, baby-faced man of 30. He talked
with the women about his life—cocaine and crystal meth use
by age 9; a foster father who abused him sexually; 10 suicide
attempts, the first of which occurred when he was just 8 years
The Whites talked with Brown about Cathy, and showed him photos.
They brought pictures of Ami’s newborn son, the grandson Cathy
would never see.
Brown apologized repeatedly for his crime, and answered the
Whites’ questions. The most powerful moment of the film comes
when Brown reveals Cathy’s last words — “I forgive you, and
God will, too.” It seems difficult for him to say the words,
as if they make it harder for him to ever forgive himself.
After the screening, White told the Barre audience that hearing
her daughter’s final statement was difficult, but ultimately
comforting. “If she could say that in the last few moments
of her life,” White reasoned, “then she wasn’t in the kind
of terror I had imagined she was.”
The dialogue with Brown “was so hard,” she says, “the hardest
thing I ever had to do.” But, she adds, “It was amazing.”
She felt compassion for Brown, and says she has even forgiven
him. She hopes that when he is released—he didn’t make parole
in 2004, but could soon—their conversation will have helped
him to reform.
That’s not to say that she thinks everyone should experience
victim-offender mediation. White notes that her own husband
and Cathy’s two brothers would not take part in the dialogue.
None of them has even been able to watch the entire film.
And that’s fine, she says. Who could ever blame them?
According to White, the only negative comment she’s heard
from people is about the hug. “It just never occurred to me
not to,” she says with a shrug. “That’s the only way I can
Victim Services director Amy Holloway calls White’s experience
extraordinary. “If those things happen, like compassion, forgiveness
and understanding, that’s a gift,” she cautions, “but that’s
not necessarily what’s going to happen. There’s no presumption
of forgiveness, there’s no presumption of anything. It’s just
‘I’m a victim and I have certain needs that need to get met,
and this person who is sitting across the table is the person
who can meet them.’ ”
Holloway adds that it’s rare for participants in these dialogues
to talk about them publicly, much less to film them. The conversations
are painful, and not many people are willing or able to speak
openly about them.
Given the sensitive nature of the process, officials are reluctant
to contact past participants to talk with the media, and the
ones contacted for this story did not respond. That includes
two Vermonters involved in a victim-offender dialogue Patten
facilitated: She tells the story of a drunk driver who killed
a father and son several years ago.
The offender recently was released from prison. Before he
left, he met with the wife and sister of his older victim.
Patten says both conversations went well, but the one with
the sister was the more productive of the two.
asked, ‘How are you going to continue this process when no
one’s hanging over your head? After you’re out of prison?
Because I’m going to need you to prove it to me for the rest
of both of our lives that you’re not going to be back to who
you were that day,’ ” Patten recalls.
He told her that he intended to speak to young people about
the perils of drunk driving and what it did to his life. Coincidentally,
she had the same goal.
Patten says the pair has made multiple joint visits to Vermont
schools and correctional facilities over the past few years.
The parole board initially was involved in helping them establish
their relationship outside of prison. “We can’t take that
kind of connection lightly,” she explains. “We have to be
careful. But it worked beautifully.”
Patten says the man has managed to integrate back into the
community successfully, and speculates that the victim-offender
dialogue had something to do with it.
David Peebles, DOC restorative and community justice director,
says a new study, to be released before the end of the year,
will likely show that the Community Justice Center reparative
boards—which bring lower-level offenders together with victims
and community members—are working well. He says they’re reducing
recidivism, and making participants feel better about their
But he doesn’t want to rush into dialogues about more serious
crimes. “The concern is that it becomes sort of a novelty,
and people all want to try and do this,” he says. “I think
one size does not fit all. It’s important for people to really
do a lot of assessment here to see when and if it’s appropriate.”
He points out that in the wrong hands, these dialogues could
easily become “volatile.” “I want to make sure that people
are well-trained, well-skilled, and have developed the right
assessment tools, and that we go about this in a very cautious
way,” he says. Still, Peebles expects these dialogues to be
a powerful new tool to help Vermonters deal with violent crime.
Holloway says it might be valuable even to those who don’t
choose to go through with it. “Whether we get a hundred people
to do it, or whether we get five people,”she says, “the fact
that victims know they could do this if they wanted to is
very empowering.” She has already spoken with one woman whose
family member was murdered years ago in Rutland. Says Holloway,
“She said to me, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever do it, but knowing
that I can makes me feel like less of a victim.’ ”
Resmer is a staff writer for Burlington, Vt., newsweekly Seven
Days, where this article first appeared.