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A Journey Toward Healing

Restorative justice brings crime victims and perpetrators together to confront the loss. It's helping one grieving widow find forgiveness.

October 01, 2005|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SAN QUENTIN — Deep inside this infamous old prison, Patty O'Reilly stands before eight men doing hard time, her shoulders slumped, a man's gold wedding band hanging from a chain around her neck.

Three of the inmates are sobbing. The others sit motionless on metal chairs, eyes locked on the small, sad woman in front of them.

O'Reilly's words seep out. A ballet teacher from Sonoma, she has come to San Quentin to share a story -- about the killing of a husband and the trauma caused by that loss.

She tells of two daughters left fatherless, of a widow, not yet 40, paralyzed by grief. Weeping now, O'Reilly describes happy futures shredded in an instant by one man's single, terrible act.

But she also talks of the unlikely journey that has led her through the gates of San Quentin, to face this group of veteran cons. They can't believe she's come. But to hear her tell it, O'Reilly really had no choice.

Her path is being followed by a rising number of crime victims and survivors. Despite ever-tougher sentences and the world's highest incarceration rate, many victims feel the nation's traditional method of meting out justice comes up short. Anguished and unable to heal, they are finding strength through an alternative philosophy called restorative justice.

Inspired by ancient tribal traditions and biblical teachings, restorative justice aims to achieve accountability for crimes in a direct, tangible way -- rather than simply through "symbolic" penalties imposed by the state. As supporters see it, offenders must understand that their crimes were not some abstract violation of law, but a harm inflicted upon real people who need a chance to be made whole again.

In perhaps its purest expression, restorative justice occurs through mediated, face-to-face encounters between victim (or surviving relatives) and offender. Victims chronicle their pain, ask nagging questions, speak their piece. Offenders, in turn, confront the extent of the human damage they caused, apologize and agree -- often in a written contract -- to make amends.

Through the process, both sides -- as well as the community damaged by the crime -- theoretically are "restored."

"The criminal justice system tends to say, 'OK, we've punished the guy, sayonara,' " said Todd R. Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "But while punishment is important, many victims feel it's not enough. They need closure. They need to hear why he did it and see some kind of indication that the offender gets it. Restorative justice offers them that."

O'Reilly's unwitting acquaintance with the concept began on a rural Sonoma County road one misty April evening in 2004. With one of the family cars sidelined for repairs, her husband, Danny, had offered to bicycle the 30 miles to work that day.

Curly haired and 5 feet 8, the 43-year-old was a doting father with a knack for storytelling and a passion for playing Twister with his daughters, Erin and Siobhan. He remembered everyone's name, loved Halloween, played the cello and was famous for his homemade soups.

Setting out for home that April day, Danny O'Reilly was well-equipped for the ride -- with flashing safety lights, a bright yellow jacket, a helmet and a headlamp. It wasn't enough. Rounding a bend on a two-lane road at dusk, he was struck from behind by a pickup truck, his body sent flying 25 feet, over a guardrail and into a patch of weeds. He died instantly.

Late that night, Patty O'Reilly and the girls arrived home to a dark house. After tucking them in, she brushed her teeth and headed for bed, assuming Danny was there. Instead she found no sign of him, and began to fight a creeping sense of dread.

Before long, the sheriff's deputy had arrived, a priest was on the way and a man who had been driving home from a bar with a blood-alcohol level almost three times the legal limit was under arrest.

In the beginning O'Reilly would simply sit on the floor and cry. For a time, she felt crippled, her walk an awkward shuffle. Sleep was futile, disturbed by visions of Danny's body and the wheels of a truck.

The garden -- so meticulously tended by her husband -- became overrun with weeds. After friends and family stopped supplying casseroles, O'Reilly hauled the girls to local delicatessens, too shattered to cook. Her 13th wedding anniversary came and went, another agonizing reminder of the loss.

Meanwhile, William Michael Albertson, 47, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. With a former felony conviction on his record, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Case closed.

For a time, O'Reilly hated the man who killed her husband. She wanted the cell door slammed and never reopened. She wanted him to spend every waking moment agonizing over what he had done.

"I hated him," O'Reilly recalled. "I really thought he was the scum of the earth. Worse than scum."

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