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Talking through the pain

Patty O'Reilly comes face to face with the man who killed her husband. She listens so she can forgive -- and he sees up close the harm he has done.

February 17, 2007|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

Folsom, Calif. — IT'S a warm, cloudless day and Patty O'Reilly is about to meet the man who killed her husband. A million thoughts compete for attention in her head. Two stand out.

Why am I here?

What good will it do?

It has taken O'Reilly 29 months to get to this emotional state, to the point where she can walk on sturdy legs into a maximum-security prison and face a convict who blasted a giant crater in her life.

In the beginning, O'Reilly felt only loathing for the man. She was too wracked by loss to consider anything else.

But gradually she became aware of the possibility, however slight, of finding some useful purpose in her grief. That's why she is here today, in the belly of the state prison at Folsom, with a water bottle, rosary beads and her sister at her side.

Soon a door will swing open, and inmate No. T22186, a man named Mike Albertson, will appear in his prison blues. The two will sit face to face -- victim and victimizer -- and talk. What comes out of it is up to them.

The encounter is a first for the California correctional system. Minnesota, Texas and other states have encouraged such dialogues, but California -- its prisons beset by overcrowding and countless other woes -- is arriving late to the game.

O'Reilly, a petite, dark-haired woman of 41, is a willing pioneer. Through her sorrow, she has become a believer in restorative justice, the philosophy underlying her meeting today. To heal, she says, survivors of crime need something beyond the punishments the courts dispense: the chance to hear the truth about what happened to their loved ones and "the empowering opportunity" to look the offender in the eye.

The goal for offenders, meanwhile, is a flesh-and-blood understanding of the harm they have caused.

"When you put a real face on the crime and hold them accountable, there's no escaping the impact," says Rochelle Edwards, a mediator from the state's Office of Victim and Survivor Services. Then, she adds, convicts "connect the dots in their own lives" to learn what set them on a criminal path.

"After that, they can't go back," she says. "They have too many insights, too many tools, to offend again."

O'Reilly's trust in the process is strong. But on this September morning, she has no real idea what lies ahead.

Nor does Albertson, 49, the unwelcome intruder in O'Reilly's life. He has spent months awaiting this day. Abandoned by family and friends, he has had no visitors since he was sent to prison in September 2004. His health is poor, and his remaining 12 years behind bars stretch before him.

What good will come from revisiting this crime? What can he possibly say or do to make amends?

"I used to think a great deal of myself, before all this," Albertson says. "And now I am a person who has done something unimaginable, something so heinous. The pain, fear, sadness and guilt surrounding that are just overwhelming sometimes."

THE event that knit these lives together happened on a spring evening in 2004, in the heart of Northern California's wine country. Riding his bicycle home from work, Danny O'Reilly was struck from behind by a pickup truck. In an instant, his life ended at 43.

At first, his widow felt she could not go on. Only the needs of her two children, themselves overcome with grief, kept her trudging forward.

Eventually, she resumed work as director of a dance studio and struggled to reassemble her life. Albertson, who had been driving drunk, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a prison term of 14 years. But Patty O'Reilly came to crave a different sort of justice, a more direct expression of accountability from the man who had altered her world.

Two years later, her day begins early, at the modest home in Sonoma she shares with daughters Erin, 15, and Siobhan, 10. After a long drive, she and her sister, Mary Eble, arrive at the prison east of Sacramento. Edwards is with them.

For months Edwards has been preparing O'Reilly and Albertson for their meeting -- unearthing possible land mines, suggesting how both might find meaning in their unexpected relationship. Today, she will guide the conversation, provide support. "A human guardrail," she calls herself.

The warden meets the trio at the prison gate, offering his welcome and a warm handshake. At the first security stop, officers search the visitors' belongings, almost apologetically. Word of O'Reilly's purpose here has spread.

O'Reilly removes her white tennis shoes and crosses through the metal detector. After a short van ride, and two more security checks, the three women arrive at their destination, a small, windowless conference room. The lights are bright, and Edwards does not like the feel of the place, pronouncing it cramped. But it is a prison, and there are no options.

O'Reilly sits in one of five chairs around the table's edge. Four water bottles are lined up near her, beside a box of tissue. She takes a bite of an apple, then rests her head on both hands and takes three deep, audible breaths.

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