Victim Offender Dialogue, Part 2

Part 2 – The Victim’s Perspective

Dillon’s father was murdered when he was just a baby. He grew up always longing to have his father in his life, feeling cheated and hating the man who murdered his father.   Every milestone in Dillon’s life, he grieved the absence of his father, constantly wondering what his life could have been like if his father was in it. Dillon grew up hearing about the night of the murder from family and from trial transcripts. On Dillon’s 18th birthday, he told his mother he wanted to meet the man who killed his father. He wanted to hear the details of the murder from the killer. He wanted to ask him “why”, and he wanted to tell him face to face how much pain the offender had caused, and he wanted the offender to know how much he hated him.

Dillon knew his offender was incarcerated in a Nashville prison, and he called the Department of Correction (TDOC) to get permission to see him. He learned about the Victim Offender Dialogue program that would allow him to meet his offender face to face. But, before that could happen, he had to go through a process to ready him for the meeting, AND the offender would have to agree to meet. If the offender did not also agree to participate in the preparation process, there would be no dialogue. Dillon’s offender consented to participation and TDOC assigned two trained volunteer facilitators who would conduct the preparation sessions and the actual dialogue. I was fortunate to be paired with Viki Matson, Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, who was also a trained facilitator. Viki and I were given information on the offender with the particulars about the crime and his sentence. Viki and I made arrangements to meet with the offender at the prison. We told him that the son of his victim wanted to meet him. We outlined the dialogue process and asked him if he would participate. The offender had committed the crime when he was 19, and had spent the last 18 years incarcerated at DeBerry Prison in Nashville. He told us that during those 19 years he hadn’t been “doing” time, he had been “using” time. He had taken every program that was available to him in prison, and one in particular, a college program from the University of Kentucky that came to the prison and conducted classes like “victimology” had made a dramatic impact on him. The offender said he “wanted” to meet with his victim’s son to tell him that over the last 18 years of his incarceration, he often thought about the family of the man he had killed, and that he was sorry for the life he took and the pain that he had caused.

We asked the offender to tell us how he got to point in his life that he murdered someone. He began by telling us he came from a middle class family that lived up north for the first part of his life. His mom and Dad divorced when he was young, and he developed a special relationship with his grandmother, ironically it turned out, very similar to the relationship that Dillon had with his grandmother. When he was 10 or 11, his mother moved their family to Nashville for work opportunities, leaving his grandmother and his father. He was crushed to leave the main support of his grandmother, and after they moved, he also no longer had contact with his father. He felt abandoned by his father, and isolated from his grandmother. Coming from a northern state to a southern state, he really didn’t feel like he fit in when he got to Nashville. By the time he was a freshman in high school he was either ignored or bullied by his peers. In the 10th grade after a brutal beat down by a group of kids, he decided he needed to get a gun for protection. Carrying a gun made him feel safe, and powerful, and the anger that was brewing inside him began connecting him with others who had similar issues. His Mom worked long hours to provide for their family, and it gave him more time unsupervised. He began participating in delinquent acts and getting in trouble with the law.

We continued our conversation, asking questions about the murder from the offender’s recollection that we would later share with Dillon. Vicki and I next met with the victim. We told Dillon all that his offender had shared with us. We asked Dillon what he wanted from the face to face. After hearing the offender’s version of the murder, it brought up more questions and anger that Dillon wanted us to take to our next meeting with the offender. We shared Dillon’s questions in our next visit with the offender, and told him about Dillon’s hard emotions for him. We did not soften any of the anger, pain, grief, or hatred that Dillon expressed, and we asked him how he would feel to receive those emotions from Dillon, face to face, on the day of the dialogue. He told us it would be hard, but that he needed to receive it.

Viki and I continued the back and forth meetings with the victim and the offender, taking the responses of each party to the other for processing and response. For the victim, this back and forth information sharing allowed him to resurrect and process his deep emotions of pain – emotionally, spiritually, and verbally. It also allowed him to hear responses from the offender which spiked his anger and generated other questions he wanted answers to. For the offender, this process uncovered the stark reality of the pain his actions caused the victim, and it also provided opportunity to prepare himself emotionally to face the victim, and to face all of the pain he personally was responsible for. This was a very difficult process for both parties, but one that was therapeutic for the victim AND the offender. When we as facilitators felt both parties were ready for the face to face meeting, the case was taken to TDOC for approval, and for scheduling the date for the dialogue.

Written by:  Verna Wyatt, Co-Founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims

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