Is There Room for Forgiveness in Criminal Justice?

On March 28th 2010, 19-year old Connor McBride shot Ann Margaret Grosmaire, his fiancé and girlfriend of three years in the midst of a heated argument between the two. Ann died in the hospital four days later. Rather than flee or try to cover up his actions, Connor walked into the Tallahassee Police Department in Tallahassee, Florida and turned himself in. Previously, Connor had never been in trouble, he was youth leader in his community, and had become a part of Grosmaire family. In any other case, Connor would have likely been convicted of first-degree murder, a conviction that, in the state of Florida, carries a minimum life sentence or the death penalty. But in this case, Connor only got 20 years imprisonment plus 10 years of parole. The reason: forgiveness.

Ann’s parents, Andy and Kate Grosmaire, were practicing Catholics, with forgiveness at the very essence of their practice. This moral grounding drove their actions in the coming days, weeks, and months after Ann’s death. Rather than retaliate or seek retribution, the Grosmaires searched forgiveness. What they wanted was closure, to understand how and why their daughter died. Moreover, they did not want Connor to spend his life imprisoned.  So, they decided to take part in a restorative-justice diversion program: victim-offender dialogue.

Victim-offender dialogue allow for the airing of the truth. Both parties confront one another and state the facts, as they understand them. This process creates a space in which reconciliation can begin and is thought to reduce recidivism rates. This practice was typically used for drug cases or more minor offense, and had never previously been attempted for a murder case. The Grosmaires, however, were insistent, and the prosecutor eventually agreed to participate, though did not promise to rescind the first-degree murder charges.

The dialogue took place on June 22nd 2011, with the Grosmaires, the Prosecutor, a mediator, and Connor. Connor told the story of how he shot Ann, step-by-step, and after he was finished, the Grosmaires were given the chance to ask questions. At the end of the session, the mediator asked the Grosmaires to recommend a sentence for Connor. Kate asked for no less than 5 years imprisonment and no more than 15; Andy asked for between 10 and 15 years imprisonment. The ultimate decision however, lay with the prosecutor. Having been impacted by the process, he eventually rescinded his original charges and gave Connor the option of 25 years imprisonment or 20 years in prison with 10 years of parole.

The case calls into the question the very premise of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice is, by nature, retributive – it is punishment for wrongdoings. The question is, what is the purpose of criminal prosecution. Arguments are made for its capacity to deter criminal activity and bring closure to the victims and their families; however, in this case, restorative justice was more beneficial to the victim’s family than the traditional system would have been. What is gained through punishment by imprisonment or, in the United States, the death penalty? Are there criminal cases when forgiveness should play a role and restorative justice should prevail?

In answering this question, it is important to remember the particulars of this case. Ann’s murder was not an accident, but it was not meticulously planned either. Given the circumstances of her death, it is unlikely that Connor would have ever killed again. This was a crime of passion, in the heat of the moment, and that opens the door for restorative justice.

This is not to discount the role of the criminal justice system. It is a tremendously important piece in the maintenance of law and order in a given society. But it is to say that the system is incomplete, lacking the reconciliation factor that allows one to move beyond the crime; allowing criminals to be better reintegrated into society, allowing victims to make their peace. It shouldn’t be one or the other – retributive or restorative justice. There should be space for the two systems to work together. There should be space for forgiveness.

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Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at jah340@georgetown.edu, follow her on twitter @joleneh340, our read her blog at neophytepeacebuild.wordpress.com

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