The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. On March 21, 1996, I received the call every mother fears the most. My 21-year-old son, Christopher, had been murdered. In a senseless fight that quickly escalated out of control, Christopher was shot four times by his roommate. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
The violence and anger involved in my son’s death is simply not understandable to me. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it and I am still baffled about how any person can get angry enough to kill someone.
I had to do something to keep from losing my mind. I had to deal with my anger and my pain, my unremitting sense of loss and grief.
Within two weeks I had joined Compassionate Friends, a nationwide organization that provides support and care for families who have lost a child. It was the first step in healing myself and eventually forgiving my son’s murderer. It took me a few years to come to terms with Christopher’s sudden death and I still work on it every day. Joining this organization was immensely beneficial for me as part of this process.
When Christopher was murdered, I had never heard about the concept of restorative justice. Then I met Jacques Verduin, at that time the executive director of the Insight Prison Project. Jacques explained that restorative justice is an approach that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the community. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take full responsibility for their actions, "to repair the harm they've done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service." I realized that these were principles I had always lived by, and wanted to continue doing so.
After taking classes with the Insight Prison Project and volunteering at San Quentin State Prison, I decided to pursue a one-on-one victim/offender dialogue with my perpetrator. I needed to know that the person who had murdered Christopher was human enough to feel the pain of what he had done; to realize what he had taken from our family by murdering my son.
The purpose of the dialogue is to provide victims of crime the opportunity for a structured meeting with their offenders, in a secure, safe environment, in order to help them with their recovery process. A dialogue provides the offenders the opportunity to fully understand and take responsibility for the impact of their crime, which can help in their own recovery as well—if they are truly open to doing the heart/hard work required.
The more individual offenders understand themselves, and the more the impact of their victim(s) becomes personalized, the greater hope we have to reduce recidivism and prompt offenders to make the necessary changes to live meaningful and productive lives. At the end of their intensive eight months (this can be up to a year) work with the facilitator, the offender is ready to meet face-to-face with the victim(s). It is ultimately the facilitator’s decision when the inmate is ready; sometimes he never is.
In preparation for my dialogue, I began meeting once a month with a licensed psychotherapist and victim offender mediator. During the eight months we met, this therapist also met with Mark Taylor, the perpetrator, at the state prison in Coalinga, to prepare him for the dialogue. Mark would ask questions through her and I would respond and/or ask questions back.
During this process, I came up with some questions I wanted to ask Mark when I saw him, as well as a few things I wanted to share. I wanted to know if Mark was just “doing time," or if he was "using time" (contributing to his prison community in any way). I wondered if he had ever considered jumping bail and what the anniversary of Christopher’s murder was like for him. I also wanted to share a dream I had that he had rung my doorbell and when I answered, he told me, “I’m free and I just wanted to say I’m very sorry about what I did.”
My big concern was that when I saw Mark for the first time again, I would be overcome with grief. When I met with the therapist, we often discussed this fear. I slowly learned to talk myself through my anxiety by saying that this dialogue was my choice: I could walk out of the room and the prison at any time.
Because of a confidentiality agreement, the warden of the prison where Mark was incarcerated insisted I sign, I cannot share specific details of the time Mark and I spent in that very small room in the prison that day. What I can say is that I experienced both disappointment and relief. I had not been sure all these years if Mark Taylor was really the monster I thought he was. I had only met him for five minutes when he became my son’s housemate at school. The next time I saw him was during court proceedings.
I realized at some point in this process that I had been thrown into a relationship with Mark totally against my will and I needed to come to a place of comfort, so the relationship did not haunt me. I can understand terrible mistakes. If Mark had made a fatal mistake when he killed Christopher, and if he had taken responsibility for his actions, I would be able to understand.
But Mark did the opposite. He did not take responsibility. He felt he had the “right” to kill Christopher in his “home” (it was contracted school housing). He implied that if Christopher had been killed, it meant I must have been a terrible parent. Mark Taylor also felt that he was being kept in jail only so the “prison industrial complex” could make money off him.
Preparing for the dialogue, I felt 100 percent ready to forgive Christopher's tragic death if Mark were ready to take full responsibility for his crime. But Mark Taylor failed on all counts.
Despite my disappointment in his attitude, I felt a deep sense of relief. I knew that Christopher was proud of me. As well, I finally felt comfortable with the relationship with Mark Taylor. Yes, he would still be a presence in my life, but he needed to work on his life and I could not help him with that. During the dialogue I tried many times to encourage him to accept the consequences of his actions, but he did not open that door for himself.
What made me saddest is that two lives had been lost: my son, Christopher, who was murdered, and Mark Taylor’s, who so far has chosen to live his life in prison and not contribute anything positive to his community there.
It’s true that restorative justice has helped many other victims and offenders come to terms with their loss and crimes. I still hold out hope for Mark. For me, it’s been invaluable in the coping and healing process, and I’m grateful for its existence.