Victim, inmate dialogue a relief to some

Group connects convicts with those affected by crimes

“My fear that day was that I would not be able to look him in the eyes and forgive him. But he walked in and he wasn’t an animal. He was a young guy that could be my son.” Randy Clement, 56, uncle of slain Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jeremy Newchurch

When Tonya Tillman first locked eyes with the man convicted of killing her older brother, she let out a sob soaked in dormant relief.

In the 25 years since Louis Tillman Jr.’s death, the anger in his younger sister’s gut melted away gradually, making room for a burning desire to forgive her brother’s former friend and convicted killer, Isiah Jones Jr.

So by the time their emotional meeting ended at Louisiana State Penitentiary two years ago, Tillman said, she wouldn’t have minded if the guards had let Jones follow her out of Angola’s gates.

The supervised encounter would not have happened without the Department of Public Safety & Corrections’ Victim-Offender Dialogue Program, which connects convicted criminals such as murderers, robbers and rapists with people either directly or indirectly scarred by their crimes. And while the unique opportunity remains seldom grasped by victims, those who complete the often tear-tugging exercise describe it as life-changing.

“It has been one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” said Tillman, 42, of Plaquemine.

Guiding her along the way was a comforting older sister, Wanda Thompson, 50, also of Plaquemine. The two sat next to each other for hours deep inside the state’s largest prison, seeking the truth behind their brother’s fatal stabbing, but also looking for a chance to forgive Jones, who’s now serving life in Angola for a second-degree murder conviction in Tillman’s death.

The sisters came away satisfied, and both wish they could go back.

They represent a small number of Louisianians who have undergone months of counseling for what most participants hope is a day of enlightenment — a day when long-hidden truths are exposed by inmates who have nothing to gain besides the easing of their own conscience.

Louisiana has offered the free service for a decade. Over that time, facilitators — the volunteer mediators who meet alternately with the victims and inmates leading up to the sit-down — have handled about 100 cases, roughly half of which have ended in face-to-face meetings, said Gayle Cothell, the program’s director.

Despite the disappointingly low turnout, the numerous success stories Cothell has witnessed fortified her conviction that the program works.

Randy Clement, 56, said he had already dealt with the slayings of an uncle and a niece when his nephew, Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Sgt. Jeremy Newchurch, was shot to death during a drug bust in March 2006.

In the previous two killings, Clement, a preacher at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, forgave the people responsible for the death of his loved ones. But he never spoke with them, and the state’s program offered a unique chance to practice what he preaches in person.

In August, after more than a year of facilitator meetings, Clement, of Prairieville, drove several hours to Avoyelles Correctional Center to meet Byron Meads, the man sentenced to 30 years in prison for Newchurch’s highly publicized death.

“My fear that day was that I would not be able to look him in the eyes and forgive him,” Clement recalled. “But he walked in and he wasn’t an animal. He was a young guy that could be my son.”

The two men, connected only by tragedy, sat directly across from each other at the same table and talked for about three hours — about Newchurch, about healing — just about life.

Meads told Clement that he never intended to hurt anybody, but that he had since come to terms with the fact that his initial actions, whether or not he pulled the trigger, led to Newchurch’s death.

“I gave him a big hug and I did not see the killer of my nephew,” Clement said. “He told me what I needed to hear.”

Craig DeRoche, president of Justice Fellowship, a nonprofit prisoner and victim advocacy group, said the conversations benefit everyone involved, especially in a state that infamously sports the highest incarceration rate in the nation.

“This has been shown to have a lasting impact on changing the lives of people that have committed crimes,” DeRoche said. “And so it makes us all safer. It prevents future victims from being created, and it gives a relief from the anger and the fear that victims of crimes feel, which is a pain that they would otherwise carry for the rest of their life.”

DeRoche said Louisiana has served as a pioneer in the movement to sprout state-run victim-offender dialogue programs, which exist in similar form in 13 other states, according to the National Organization for Victim Assistance.

“It’s one of the areas where Louisiana is ahead of other states,” DeRoche said.

Catalene Theriot, whose son Carl Dean Theriot Jr. was fatally shot in 1994, describes Louisiana’s program as an avenue that focuses not on convicted criminals, but on the victims, such as parents who long for one last hug with their daughter who was killed by a drunk driver.

“You turn on the TV — all you hear about is the offender,” Theriot said. “You don’t hear about the victims. The victims are forgotten.”

Since her son’s death, Theriot has made it her mission to reach out to crime victims, knowing first-hand the feeling of loneliness, loss and emptiness that lingers even years after the convictions. In 2002, she founded Voices of Innocent Citizens Empowered, or VOICE, a program in the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office of Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes that offers group counseling to crime victims and their families.

Theriot said many potential Victim-Offender Dialogue candidates fear that prisoners who consent to dialogue will somehow benefit by going through the counseling, a notion that scares them away.

“They won’t get anything out of it,” Theriot tells the victims, often sharing her own dialogue story. “But you will.”

Cothell, the state program director and one of the program’s first facilitators, emphasized that prisoners do not receive any special treatment for agreeing to the victim’s counseling request.

Still, most consent. Since 2003, only two inmates have rejected requests, one whom did so after nearly two years of counseling.

“We talk to the offender and we get as much information as we can, or as the victim or survivor wants us to get” prior to the dialogue, said Mary Strickland, who served as one of Clement’s facilitators.

In January, Cothell plans to double the size of her volunteer staff to nearly 40 facilitators during a week-long training seminar.

Sgt. Carolyn Stapleton, coordinator for East Baton Rouge Parish’s state-funded victim compensation fund, said she is one of the new adds. With years of experience working as the director of the Sheriff’s Office’s Crime Victims Assistance program, Stapleton has often gone out of her way to serve as a listening ear or a soft shoulder for people suffering in the wake of violent crimes.

“It is such an important process for healing,” Stapleton said.

The Plaquemine sisters, Tillman and Thompson, both wish they could spend another day with the man convicted of killing their brother. Clement, too, would like another chance to see Meads.

In response, program administrators have considered expanding the dialogue to include additional meetings.

“You cannot wrap 25 years into a one-time session,” Thompson said.

She explained that America’s criminal justice system leans too heavily on punishing offenders, often leaving behind the true victims of their crimes.

“This program has been beneficial because once you go to trial and trial is over, the family that is the victim has no other recourse,” Thompson said. “The criminal justice system basically says, ‘Now everything is over, everybody go back to your corners and live your lives. You all go home and live happily ever after.’ ”

“The only problem is that’s not the case. It can’t be happily ever after,” Thompson said. “There was some closure that I still needed.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said the state’s program is not linked to his office’s Victim Assistance Counselor Program, which offers emotional support to crime victims and their families. Nor is the Victim-Offender Dialogue affiliated with the Louisiana Crime Victims Reparations Fund, which offers partial financial relief to qualifying victims.

Moore said the dialogue provides an opportunity for the healing of festering psychological wounds for some people.

“They want to know, ‘Hey, why did you do what you did to me?’ ” Moore said. “And I can see that type of closure may have some benefit in it to some particular victims. But it’s surely not designed for everybody.”

For Tonya Tillman, though, and many others, the dialogue offers justice no courtroom ever could.

“I’m OK with my brother’s death,” Tillman said. “I’m OK with Isiah. If he had the opportunity to be free, I would not try to stop it.”