By Pierre R. Berastain
The United States Supreme Court ruled this past month that children cannot receive life-without-parole sentences. The following letter from a mother appeared on Douglas A. Berman’s blog. In 1986, Dr. Linda White’s daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered. In 2000, Dr. White met her daughter’s killer thanks to Bridges to Life, an organization that employs the practices of restorative justice and victim-offender dialogue to help victims of crime heal by allowing them to meet their perpetrators.
On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that it is cruel and unusual to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on children. As a mother whose daughter was murdered by two teenage boys, I speak for many victims’ family members who support the Court’s sound decision.
I certainly never imagined that I would become a passionate advocate against life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. I had never confronted the issue until November 18, 1986, the day my world was forever changed when my 26-year-old daughter Cathy, then pregnant with her second child, was killed by two teenage boys.
This tragedy set me on an unlikely path that led me to discover that even youths who commit the worst crimes have the capacity to grow into mature, redeemed adults. I know this because I watched my daughter’s killer, Gary, become such an adult.
I spent the years following Cathy’s death studying to become a grief counselor. I became involved in a restorative justice program, Bridges to Life, that allows convicts and crime victims to open a dialogue and work toward reconciliation. In 2000, I opened myself up to this dialogue with Gary.
When I met Gary, I found that he was a very different person from the boy who once committed a horrible act. He was a remorseful grown man desperately seeking forgiveness and a chance to make up for the hurt he caused. My decision to forgive Gary does not mean that what happened is OK. It can never be OK, and Gary knows that as well as I do. But keeping him in prison for a longer period would not bring my daughter back.
Gary has now been out of prison for over a year. He has since dedicated himself to being a positive influence in his community, including working with drug and alcohol addicts at his church. He regularly tells me that he wants to live a good, impactful life as a “memorial” to my daughter.
Gary is a poster child for why I believe life sentences are so unjust for juveniles. I have seen that youth have enormous potential to change, and that we should not lock them up without giving them a second chance.
I have also seen that my story is not unique. I was one of many victims’ family members who appealed to the Supreme Court to do away with juvenile life-without-parole sentences. While each of our experiences are different, we are united in our belief that keeping children like Gary permanently locked away only compounds the ugliness of crime with the ugliness of hopeless prison sentences.
I strongly believe that young offenders need to be held accountable for their actions. But it is wrong to sentence them to punishments that fail to take into consideration their age and capacity for change. By denying children the opportunity to someday earn release, you are telling these kids, as Justice Ginsburg stated, that they are throwaway kids. As they go before judges for resentencing, factors that were dismissed before, such as their age at the time of the crime, their histories of abuse and neglect and their roles in the crime must be considered. I will feel a sense of calm that children who made tragic mistakes will have an opportunity to be judged by more than their worst act.
Even though he committed an unspeakable crime, Gary was not a throwaway kid. Had he been sentenced to life-without-parole, he would never have been able to become a living memorial to Cathy.
“I forgive you, and God will, too.” These were the last words Cathy spoke before her death. I know Cathy would be gratified to see Gary have a second chance and become the positive member of society that he is today.
Stories of redemption like Gary’s are testaments to why the Supreme Court got it right by prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. The Court has taken an important step in upholding America’s promise to never give up on our children.
The following is part 1/4 of Meeting with a Killer, a brief documentary on Dr. White’s experience.