There is no way the legal system – or anyone else — can undo the terrible wounds left on people who have had a loved one murdered. But can the system or those involved in different aspects of it help survivors of a murder victim go forward in leading their lives?
That was the underlying question at the remarkable and emotionally intense 2013 Restorative Justice Conference held last week at Marquette Law School’s Eckstein Hall. “The Death Penalty Versus Life Without Parole: Comparing the Healing Impact on Victims’ Families and the Community” brought together about 200 people from Wisconsin and much of the country to examine the post-murder lives of family members.
But among the many speakers, six stood out – because, as survivors of victims, they personally had gone through the grieving and dealt with the legal system and so many other problems. Three from Texas, two from Minnesota, and one from the Milwaukee area told their searing stories in a pair of panel discussions on Friday morning, the second day of the conference.
“I was a walking dead person for 12 years,” said Paula Kurland, describing the aftermath of her daughter’s murder in Texas. She described the changes in her family’s life after the murder as “so drastic and so awful.”
But two weeks before the murdered was executed, she took part in a mediation session with him. “The mediation was life saving for me,” she said of the session, which lasted five hours. “It gave me back my life. I was able to put Jonathan (the murderer) back where he needed to be. . . I walked out of there a different person, a free person.”
“Closure?” Kurland said. “There’s no such thing. It’s a media thing, not a victim thing.” But taking back your life can be for real, she said. In her case, she said, the execution of the murderer helped – she called it “more life-giving than life-taking.”
Several of the victims said a key to their success in finally reaching a point where they could go ahead with their lives was determining that the murderer was not going to run – and ruin – their lives any longer.
Patti Drew, whose father was murdered in St. Paul, Minn., said forgiveness is not about the other person. It’s about giving yourself a way to go forward. For example, she said, the murder occurred on Christmas Eve and for several years, that ruined Christmas for her. But she reached a point where she was able, largely for the sake of her own children, to make Christmas a warm family time again.
Drew said, “Forgiveness was about me not letting the perpetrator mess up the rest of my life.” She said she learned valuable lessons about herself and her values in the years after her father’s death. “I’m far more resilient than I ever thought I was,” she said. “I wouldn’t have chosen what happened to my dad, but, dang, I’m a much better person because of it,”
Marilyn Armour, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, presented findings from in-depth interviews of victims’ family members in Texas and Minnesota, conducted by her and Mark Umbreit, a professor in the School of Social Work and director of the Center for restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The work was supported by Marquette Law School and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., and their study was published in the Fall 2012 Marquette Law Review.
In analyzing the experiences, Armour and Umbreit concluded that having a legal case reach a point where there is a clear, final outcome, achieved without the process becoming too protracted, is particularly beneficial to survivors. Texas is a capital punishment state and Minnesota is not, although it uses life in prison without parole. But the notion that execution provides closure did not seem to carry much weight among the people the researchers interviewed. Minnesota was more successful in providing the certain, reasonably prompt outcome survivors preferred, while in Texas, death penalty appeals were among factors that led post-murder proceedings to become lengthy and filled with uncertainty.
Several of the survivors who spoke said they felt that they were treated as bystanders to the legal process and were not given the kind of consideration that would have helped them. Others spoke highly of the members of the prosecution team, law enforcement officers, or victims’ assistance workers who were of great help.
Drew spoke positively of the defense attorney for the murderer of her father, who, at the end of a court hearing in which the murderer entered a guilty plea, came over to her family, extended his condolences, and said he understood how hard this had been on them. That made a difference, she said.
Mary Kay Balchunas said, “Grief is inevitable; misery is optional.” Balchunas’ son, Jay, a criminal investigator for the state of Wisconsin, was murdered at a gas station in Milwaukee in 2004.
“My therapy was to delve into what can be done” to prevent more such tragedies, she said. She has researched and written on crime reduction and gun violence and has become involved in restorative justice work. Her family, as well as many friends of Jay Balchunas, is strongly involved in scholarship efforts in his memory.
Janine Geske, distinguished professor of law and director of the Restorative Justice Initiative at Marquette Law School, said she hoped the conference would help people in the legal system learn what they can do to be sensitive to survivors and would help everyone gain a greater sense of what can be done to help survivors “in their healing journey.”
It was clear from the six survivors that the process of going on with their lives after the murders was indeed a journey that was never complete. But they were taking powerful steps to make it as good a journey as they could.
Video of the presentation by Professor Armour on the first evening of the conference may be viewed by clicking here. Video of the second day of the conference may be viewed by clicking here. The panel discussions with the six victims were the first two sessions of that day.