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Linda White

Reaching Out

By Cathy Resmer

Vermont’s new victim- offender dialogue program offers a unique opportunity to heal after violent crime

 

Stories 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 with Ami.

“By 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 said it.”

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 lighter.

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 service.

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?’ ”

“Who 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.

“I 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 force it.

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 old.

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 answer it.”

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.

“She 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 communities.

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.’ ”

Cathy Resmer is a staff writer for Burlington, Vt., newsweekly Seven Days, where this article first appeared.


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