The Day the Jail Walls Cracked: A Restorative Plea Deal
When I got the call from Howard Zehr, I balked at the idea.
“In a capital case? He shot her in the head? No chance, Howard.”
Howard agreed, but encouraged me to speak with the young man’s mother and explain, from a restorative lawyer’s perspective, why it wouldn’t work.
“Go ahead and give her my number. But I don’t have anything good to tell her. What I do here with kids in Oakland is never going to happen in a capital case in Florida.”
Within the hour I was speaking with Conor’s warm and tenacious mother, Julie McBride, who tearfully told me how a few months earlier her nineteen-year-old honor student, planning to take his own life, shot his fiancée instead. Conor drove himself to the police station and confessed. She went on to explain that “everyone” wanted the case resolved through restorative justice.
“Even the victim’s parents?” I asked.
“Yes! Kate and Andy Grosmaire are the ones who told me about restorative justice.”
“You’re in contact with them?”
“I just had breakfast with them last week. My husband, Michael, meets with Andy every Friday. And both of Ann’s parents visit Conor in jail.”
“Julie, it sounds like a remarkable situation. But I’m just not sure what we can do in a first-degree homicide case at this stage of the game.”
I went on to explain how I facilitate restorative practices in Oakland to meet victims’ needs while keeping children out of the juvenile justice system for crimes like burglary and teen dating violence. I told her about family group conferencing—how victims, families, police, the district attorney, and affected community members meet face-to-face with the child who caused harm to develop a plan to repair the harm and support the young person to follow that plan.
“But not yet for cases with gun charges or for homicides, let alone first-degree murder. Julie, it took me years to build the kind of trust I have with the DA’s office here. So even if your son and the victim’s family are amenable, I just can’t imagine how we could pull this off in a homicide case in the Florida panhandle. So I just can’t let you hire me since I can’t imagine how I can help you.”
“I understand that you can’t make any promises, but please, if you just talk with the Grosmaires, I think you’ll want to be involved in this case,” Julie pressed.
“Sure,” I said, never expecting to hear from them. Jaded by my past work as a defense lawyer, I dismissed Julie as another wonderful mother holding out an impossible hope.
Baliga, Sujatha. 2011. The Day the Jail Walls Cracked: A Restorative Plea Deal. Tikkun 27(1): 22.