Opening the Door to Forgiveness
A UW law program brings the victims of violent crimes face-to-face with the people who hurt them, proving that human compassion resides in the most unlikely places.
Jackie Millar and Craig Sussek sit opposite each other across the corner of a heavy wood table, catching up like old friends do. They talk about her new sandals, the charity walk he’ll be doing, a pair of prestigious national awards she recently received.
But they’re unlikely friends meeting in an unexpected place: a small, bare break room inside the Stanley Correctional Institution, where Millar visits Sussek each year. Fifteen years ago, in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, a sixteen-year-old Sussek shot Millar in the back of the head as he and a friend tried to steal her car.
Though she was given just a 2 percent chance of living, Millar survived, launching her on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the years since she was nearly killed, Millar has transformed a relationship with her two assailants to a level of love and acceptance that is rare in the human experience.
“I can forgive you, but forget it, I won’t,” Millar tells Sussek during their meeting within the prison walls. “I am legally blind, I am paralyzed on my right side, but I am healed from my heart.”
For the last thirteen years, Millar has been meeting with Sussek through a program offered by the UW Law School’s Frank J. Remington Center, which is directed by Meredith Ross MA’79, PhD’85, JD’90 and faculty director Walter Dickey BA’68, JD’71. Called the Restorative Justice Project, it allows crime victims such as Millar to meet with the very people who’ve committed crimes against them. The outcome of each conference is different. For some, as with Millar and Sussek, an offer of forgiveness is extended and a relationship begins. Other victims need a way to vent their anger at someone who took something very personal from them — a loved one, a sense of safety. Many come seeking understanding or healing.
The concept has benefits for offenders, too. Restorative justice can contribute to reduced recidivism and help rehabilitate offenders by allowing them to look their victims in the eye and understand the consequences of their actions.
“When I got locked up, I was still stupid and crazy, but [then] I met with you,” Sussek tells Millar. “For years, I wouldn’t let myself forgive myself for anything. It’s helped me become a better person.”
No matter what happens during a meeting — whether or not the offender takes responsibility, whether or not a victim offers forgiveness — nearly all conferences end with both sides feeling positive about participating, says Pete DeWind ’82, JD’90, a clinical associate professor at the law school. For the past decade, DeWind has directed the project, which began in the mid-1980s with meetings between property offenders and their victims at Oakhill Correctional Institution near Madison. He follows in the footsteps of former directors Dave Cook ’76, JD’81 and Bruce Kittle.
“The best testament to [a meeting] is that people come out of it saying, ‘I’m so glad I did that, I feel so much better, I’m so relieved, I feel this huge weight lifted off my shoulders,’ ” DeWind says.
The project also provides important training for the soon-to-be-lawyers who work to pull the meetings together. Six law students are chosen for the project each year. They start in May, just after completing their first year of law school. They work full time during the summer, then switch to part time for the following academic year. (Wisconsin’s other law school, at Marquette University, also has a restorative justice program; it is run by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske.)
The experience is unlike anything else during their three years in law school, say the students who’ve worked on the project. They learn to see cases from a crime victim’s point of view, and they develop compassion that they can’t learn from the black-and-white pages of the heavy law books they consume.
“I don’t know that anything could be better than that for my future career in meeting with clients,” says Christopher Behrens JD’10. “The first day at Restorative Justice, I was meeting clients and talking with them about serious, life-changing issues. That was something I could never replace.”
Jacob Stroup JDx’12, who organized this year’s meeting between Millar and Sussek, says he was drawn to the project because he wanted to explore legal work outside the traditional adversarial process of the criminal justice system.
“I hope to help other people achieve whatever it is they want out of the process, which can be different for different people,” he says.
Recognizing Victims’ Rights
Restorative justice grew out of a movement in recent decades to recognize the rights of victims. While our nation’s justice system pits prosecutors against defendants, victims — many of whom have undergone great trauma and are most affected by crimes — are often sidelined.
“The criminal justice system in the United States provides no real opportunity for this kind of exchange,” says Carla McKenzie JD’07. “Victims never get to ask the questions they have, never get to express the real emotions they have about the crime, and, consequently, offenders never get the opportunity to understand the effects of their actions on someone else.”
For a crime victim, a meeting with an offender means confronting a pivotal, life-changing moment. But it also gives a victim the chance to wrest back some control and change the life of the person who committed a crime, says Jo Winston, director of the Office of Victim Services for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, which works with the UW program to coordinate prison meetings with offenders.
Although the concept can work for nearly all types of cases, some types of offenses — such as domestic violence or sexual assault — have additional risks. In DeWind’s program, the most common requests are from family members of homicide victims.
“Some people really do want the offender to know how this changed their life,” Winston says. “They believe that unless they sit down and talk about this, the offender won’t have any real good understanding of the impact of their choices.”
McKenzie recalls going to a victim’s home and being struck by how the victim lived each day with reminders of the crime against him — paint spots on the wall that covered blood stains, the lamp whose twin had been broken in a struggle. She sees that visit to the victim’s home as a metaphor for the entire restorative justice process.
“Many victims of crime — daily, and sometimes for years on end — live in the space of the crime, relive the crime, recall it, are surrounded by it … and the crime envelops them,” she says. “Through restorative justice, in a manner of speaking, they repaint the space they’ve been inhabiting.”
Restorative justice is designed as a service for victims, but offenders’ satisfaction with the experience is important, too, DeWind says. Of the offenders who participate in the program, almost all are in prison. Some are on community supervision, while others are referred by judges, prosecutors, or defense attorneys to help their cases move through the criminal justice system. In addition to achieving a level of healing themselves, most offenders are grateful for the opportunity to pay back their victims in one of the few ways available to them.
Yet, despite the benefits for both parties, the concept is little known and used, and it doesn’t appeal to all victims. Many simply want to move on and aren’t interested in revisiting a traumatic incident. And some offenders aren’t ready to take responsibility for their actions.
The UW’s Restorative Justice Project has facilitated more than one hundred meetings during DeWind’s ten years — a small number compared with crimes committed in that same period.
“Communities don’t think in terms of restoration as much as they think in terms of reparation and punishment,” says Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at UW-Madison who has studied forgiveness, including its place in restorative justice, for twenty-five years. “But the ideas are so powerful, they will continue to give a voice that will build.”
For Millar, restorative justice offered a way to carry on. Her alternative, she says, was being “in a small padded room for the rest of my life.” Millar also meets once a year with Josh Briggs, her other attacker; their relationship began several years later because Briggs was housed in an out-of-state prison for many years.
Sussek believes more offenders could benefit from restorative justice, noting that his relationship with Millar helped him mature and turn his life around.
“People come to prison to do penitence and get back out into the world to be a helpful cog in society. Restorative justice helps people do that,” Sussek says.
Jackie Millar talks with Craig Sussek, now in prison for a crime against her, during a meeting coordinated by the Restorative Justice Project. Quietly observing in the background are law student Jacob Stroup, left, and project director Pete DeWind.
In cases where a victim and offender are meeting for the first time, DeWind and one or more of his students spend time with both parties, getting to know them and their goals for the meeting. Most victims ultimately meet face-to-face with the person who committed the crime, and some exchange letters before they come together, DeWind says.
Weeks — and sometimes months or years — can pass before a victim and offender are ready to meet. Victims and offenders sometimes keep journals of their thoughts to plant the seeds for a future visit. Some victims need a lot of time to build up the necessary emotional energy to meet the person who so intimately violated them.
The student facilitators take care of arranging many of the details for the meeting, from contacting prison officials to answering questions from victims and offenders — no matter how minor — about what might happen when they meet in person. Behrens remembers a victim asking him what kind of shoes the offender would be wearing.
“I don’t know why I noticed it, but I did, and had an answer for her,” he says.
Before any meetings, DeWind and the student assigned to the case build trust and rapport by visiting with every offender and victim in person.
“That’s a big reason why these meetings — without exception — go well, and people are satisfied they’ve done them,” he says. “In a meeting, people often initially look at us because we’re the ones they’ve known before and they’re nervous, but after our one- to two-minute introduction to these meetings, we stop talking. We’re present, but we don’t intervene unless we absolutely feel we have to or participants ask us to.”
Millar spent weeks in a coma after she was shot, but when she regained consciousness, she felt a strong pull to meet with Sussek and Briggs. Barely two years passed before Millar met with Sussek for the first time. In the time since, Millar has become a national leader in the restorative justice movement, often traveling to prisons across the country to talk with offenders from the perspective of the victims.
The Annual Visit
On a bright and steamy day last July, Millar travels three hours from her home in Madison to Stanley prison, set on a flat, bucolic tract in northwestern Wisconsin, for her yearly visit with Sussek.
Once at the prison, she puts her cane through an x-ray machine before being searched herself; the shards of bullet that remain in her head prevent her from passing through a metal detector. She then walks through a series of twelve doors — which clank heavily as they close — to reach the austere break room where she’ll spend the next two hours visiting with Sussek.
When Sussek comes through the door, he strides quickly across the room to Millar, and her face brightens with joy when she sees him.
“There she is!” Sussek exclaims as he enters, and they hug for several seconds, exchanging greetings.
As Millar and Sussek quickly settle into an easy conversation, neither DeWind nor Stroup need to say a word.
Jackie Millar hugs Craig Sussek at the start of their meeting at the prison. “It’s part of the continued healing process that I’m allowed to learn from her,” Sussek says. In turn, Millar says, “You’ve grown by leaps and bounds.”
A Capacity to Forgive
Forgiveness isn’t the goal or purpose for restorative justice — an aspect that is often misunderstood, McKenzie believes. “Forgiveness, emotional release, ‘coming to terms with,’ or ‘finding peace’ are all possible outcomes of restorative justice, but I don’t think they are the only outcomes, and they are certainly not the purpose,” she says.
Yet some crime victims find a capacity to forgive that many find difficult to understand or achieve.
“Without it, people can experience understanding and mutual respect and healing, but the depth of that will be missing without forgiveness,” Enright says. “Forgiveness has a way of taking resentment … and getting rid of it enough so that it’s not part of a person’s everyday existence.”
Dave Munz and his wife, Kathleen, have paid several visits to Michael R. Green, who in 2006 shot and killed their son, Joseph Munz, a UW-Milwaukee student, as he was delivering sandwiches. Their relationship with their son’s killer has its roots in Green’s trial. As it was wrapping up, Green’s foster mother approached the Munzes. Over time, they began exchanging letters with her, and Dave Munz felt he should try contacting Green.
Munz says his Catholic faith and his belief in God led him to a relationship with Green. He also believes that by seeing Green, he can encourage him to better himself and get an education while in prison.
“I believe in forgiveness … and I believe I’m doing the right thing by visiting with him,” Munz says.
Green, who earns a prison wage of about $2 a day doing assembly work, asked Munz how he would react if Green donated a month’s income to a scholarship fund Joseph Munz’s friends set up in his memory.
“It’s through our talking, the relationship we have built between us, that he’s able to open up and do that,” Munz says. “We haven’t all gone out and killed somebody, but we’ve all done wrong things.”
Munz believes that having a relationship with Green has helped both him and his wife to cope with their son’s death. “The value in it is that it has brought us a little peace of mind,” he says. “Whether we want to admit it or not, he’s a human being also — and, yes, he’s been wrong, and he’s paying the price right now for it.”
During their first meeting with Green, Dave Munz recalls being inquisitive, asking Green to share details about the night his son died.
“He was very truthful with us. … I think I had to have that experience with him,” Munz says.
Behrens, one of the student facilitators, met several times with a woman who had found her eighteen-year-old son’s body after he had been killed at home by a group of his peers. She was meeting one of the boys who’d been involved in the murder. At the end of the meeting, the mother surprised everyone by telling the offender she forgave him for his part in killing her son. Through all of the preparation for the meeting, she hadn’t given any indication that she’d offer a statement of forgiveness.
“It’s not something I think I could have done,” Behrens says. “Most of the restorative justice participants are doing things I don’t think I could have done. To hug the mother after she left the meeting and to feel the weight off her shoulders was a pretty powerful feeling.”
“Changing the Person that I Was”
Sussek recalls that he expected Millar to scream and yell at their first meeting. Instead, Millar said that she forgave him and asked if she could give him a hug. Sussek says he then promised Millar that he would do all that he could to make up for what he had done to her.
“There are ways to make up for it by changing the person that I was … and, hopefully, be able to help people not do something like I did,” he says. “This whole process is part of that. I like sitting down and talking with Jackie. … For me, it’s part of the continued healing process that I’m allowed to learn some things from her.”
Millar acknowledges that most people don’t understand why she wanted to meet Sussek and have an ongoing relationship with him.
“I have love for you, and I don’t like the fact I was shot, but I don’t think of you in that way,” Millar says to Sussek. “You have grown by leaps and bounds. You say it is because of me, but it is because of you. You made the change.”
Sussek tells her that others in prison know about his meetings with her, but adds that not everyone in prison understands their relationship or Millar’s ability to forgive him.
“You and I are the only people on earth who understand,” Sussek says.
Millar tells him she’s at peace with what has happened with her, and then asks Sussek why he’s willing to meet with her.
“I was thinking about that last night,” he tells her. “For a lot of years, I couldn’t get past looking at you as Jackie Millar, the lady I shot. … Now I look at you as my friend, and that’s why I want to see you.”
Millar talks through why she wants to meet with Sussek. “I see you as a fellow human being that I love,” she says. “I think you are doing a good job at being yourself.”
“I’m trying,” Sussek responds.
Toward the end of their meeting, Millar tells Sussek she’ll continue the annual visits as long as he wants her to.
“I would be a little bit sad if you said one year, no, you won’t see me,” she says. “We have grown for fourteen and a half years, and what we had to grow through is unbelievable — but we did it. We can say we came out as friends.”
Stacy Forster is a writer for University Communications at UW-Madison.
Published in the Winter 2010 issue