Traditionally, the criminal justice system has been so focused on ensuring that offenders are suitably punished that the interests and needs of victims are often overlooked. Nowhere is this more of an issue than in murder cases, where the relatives and friends of the victims are dragged through traumatic retellings of the crime.
One approach that seeks to give relatives and friends (known as “co-victims”) a voice, and to help address their suffering, is known as “restorative justice” and it involves victims (or, in the case of a murder, co-victims) meeting face to face with the offender.
While restorative justice is becoming an increasingly common practice, psychologically informed research into its effects is relatively rare. Indeed, a recent issue of the British Journal of Criminology presents the first ever case-study investigation into the effects of restorative justice on the relatives of a murder victim (specifically, two sisters of a young man who was murdered). The paper makes for difficult reading but provides some valuable insights.
John (names have been changed), a bar manager in London, was murdered at the age of 30 by two men he’d invited back to his flat one night after work. He’d encountered the men by chance in an area of London where gay men meet for sex. Their plan was to take advantage of his inebriated state and rob him, but the plan went awry, there was a violent confrontation, and one of the men – Michael – strangled him to death. Michael is serving a life sentence for murder, the other aggressor had his sentence reduced to manslaughter on appeal after claiming to have a diagnosis of Asperger’s.
Fifteen years later, two of John’s sisters accepted an invitation to take part in a restorative justice plan for them to meet Michael. They had both suffered terribly since losing their brother: one sister Janet was diagnosed with clinical depression and missed 18 months of work; the other, Barbara, developed an alcohol problem and attempted to take her own life. Mark Walters, the author of the case study, explains that these long-term difficulties are common among the co-victims of murders. Often, as was the case especially with Barbara who compulsively re-watched a documentary about her brother’s murder, they become “stuck in a cycle of re-living incoherent pain and suffering”.
Janet and Barbara were both keen to meet the man who killed their brother. They wanted to ask him why he’d killed John, and especially whether he’d been motivated by homophobia. This desire to discover an offender’s motives is apparently very common among victims, perhaps because it can help bring coherence to their narrative of the crime. Michael told the sisters that he was not homophobic, and that he and his accomplice had simply seen John as an easy target. He said he’d had no intention to kill John, but that things had gone wrong in a way he’d regretted ever since. Janet said this gave her a new understanding of her loss, one that (in Walters’ words) “put a stop to 15 years of recurring questions.”
Another motivation that the sisters had was to explain to the killer the profound consequences of his actions. They told him about their brother (“if he wasn’t my brother he could quite easily have been our friend … he was a nice guy … the guy that went with the Soup Kitchen helping the homeless … he was that guy”). In turn Michael apologised to Janet and Barbara, and they felt his apology was genuine and that they’d successfully conveyed to him how his actions were having consequences all these years later.
The sisters also heard Michael’s perspective: he’d been abused from an early age, was homeless from age 11 and had drink problems. They were sceptical at first, but then they began to soften.
“I thought, you know, ‘he’s a thug’, ‘he’s a monster’ … and it was quite shocking to see him, he was just … normal you know? … I could understand where he was coming from, what he was saying, and why it happened,” said Janet.
In a way, Walters explains, the two parties (the sisters and the killer) were revealing each other’s humanity. The meeting ended with them shaking hands and Michael promising not to return to the problems of his earlier life. The sisters said the process had been extremely beneficial. Barbara had previously rung Janet almost daily for years to discuss their brother’s murder. After the restorative justice meeting, this stopped.
However, there was an unexpected emotion that Walters highlights as potentially problematic and important for future research (“We must remain cautious about ‘rolling out’ a measure that can give rise to new psychological challenges,” he says). That is, Janet came to realise that she actually liked the murderer Michael, which ultimately led to difficult feelings of guilt.
“I came out feeling very, very guilty … cause I felt I shouldn’t have been thinking anything like that [liking Michael] at all … I shoulda, absolutely hate him and not feel any, not have any positive thoughts about him or have any compassion about him but I did.”
For his part, Michael said the meeting was one of the toughest things he’d ever done, and that nothing could be as intense as coming face to face with your victim’s family:
“…one sister asked ‘do you consider yourself to be evil to the core?’ … to be asked that by anyone is difficult but to be asked by [the] victims [of] their brother you’ve murdered, it was extremely hard to answer. [Interview: What did you say?] I answered honestly, I said that what I had done was serious and was evil but I don’t consider myself evil to the core. The sister said that they thought we don’t think you are. [Interviewer: how did that make you feel?] it made me feel very emotional to hear your victims, whose brother you’ve murdered, at the end of the day you’ve murdered their brother [and] they don’t consider you’re evil to the core. I was welling up … the sisters had tears rolling down their eyes.”
Walters said this effect of restorative justice on offenders could help break the self-fulfilling prophesy whereby criminals come to behave in ways consistent with how they believe the world sees them, as evil monsters.
This case study appears to show restorative justice as a beneficial process for the close relatives of a murder victim and for the offender. Of course the findings need to be interpreted with caution: this is just one story and as Walters explains, “it is not possible to draw generalisable conclusions.” Also, restorative justice is not for everyone: indeed, John’s two other sisters declined to take part because they felt too angry. However the research certainly highlights interesting points for future research.
“Most significantly,” Walters concludes, “The emotionality behind such [restorative] dialogue further enabled [all involved] to develop a renewed understanding of each other. Collectively, the interpersonal connections that emerged allowed all stakeholders to move beyond their experience of homicide better equipped to deal with its painful aftermath.”
Walters, M. (2015). ‘I Thought “He’s a Monster”… [But] He Was Just… Normal’ British Journal of Criminology, 55 (6), 1207-1225 DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azv026
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