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Victims struggle to heal in ‘Beyond Conviction’

Before making the documentary "Beyond Conviction," I had a very limited sense of what it was like to be a victim of a violent crime or to lose someone that you love to violence.  Like most people, I had seen televised news accounts depicting the grief and anger that occurs in the immediate wake of a crime.

This documentary tells the story of two survivors of horrific crimes on a journey toward healing and resolution. The film follows participants through a program in which victims of the most violent crimes confront the perpetrators. In the essay below, the director shares her experience making the film.

"Beyond Conviction" aired Dec. 3 on MSNBC TV.

Before making the documentary "Beyond Conviction," I had a very limited sense of what it was like to be a victim of a violent crime or to lose someone that you love to violence.  Like most people, I had seen televised news accounts depicting the grief and anger that occurs in the immediate wake of a crime.  But what happens years later? How do you go on? How do the emotions change over time?  I had even less understanding of what it was like to live with yourself if you are the one who committed these horrendous acts.  What is it like to wake up every day knowing that you took someone’s life?

The four remarkable people in "Beyond Conviction" had the courage to share these experiences with me.  While the crimes are extremely disturbing and tragic, I was fortunate to meet each person at a very positive and inspirational time in their lives.  They were all confronting the unimaginable in order to heal. In both stories at least 10 years had passed since the crime, and both the survivors and offenders were still grappling with unanswered questions and unresolved emotions.  It was clear to the survivors that the only person who could give them some resolution was the offender. And it was clear to the offenders that they had an obligation to help this person no matter how difficult it was to face them or themselves. Both offenders were deeply remorseful and this was all that they could offer.

These stories are part of a revolutionary new approach to criminal justice called restorative justice, which focuses on the human versus legal consequences of crime. In other words, rather than just looking at the laws that have been broken it focuses on the needs of the people who have been harmed.  Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that offers victim-offender mediation as part of its regular criminal justice process, and is also one of the few to work with violent crime cases. Over a five year period, my crew and I had exclusive access to their mediation cases, and with our cameras we followed the stories from the beginning when the survivors first request to meet with the offenders to the meeting itself and finally to the after-effects of this process on both the survivors and the offenders. 

Lyndy faces her offender
The two stories in "Beyond Conviction" represent two very different crimes.  In the first story, we meet Lyndy.  She’s six months pregnant with her first child and while this should be one of the happiest times of her life, a dark cloud from her past hangs over her.  Thirteen years earlier, she was brutally raped and the traumatic effects of this still control her. She worries that her lingering emotional issues may prevent her from being a good mother. After years of therapy, she’s decided that the only thing left is the inconceivable -- she needs to face Tim, the man who raped her.  She hopes that by getting the answer to one simple question -- why -- she will finally be able to let go of the fear and anger that consumes her. 

Angela meets her mother's murderer
In the second story we meet Angela, a vivacious young woman who is just starting college and looking toward the future. However, this new chapter is overshadowed by a horrible event that happened 17 years earlier. When Angela was 4 years old, her mother was murdered by her boyfriend, Angelo. Angela knew Angelo well.  While not her biological father, he was a father figure to her.  She was even named after him.  Not surprisingly, this event has defined Angela’s life.  She has difficulty trusting people and is often very emotional. At this critical juncture, Angela feels that in order to move beyond her past, she must meet the man responsible for so radically altering her life. She hopes to hear a confession and also an answer to the difficult question, “How can you kill somebody you loved?”

Like most people, when I first heard of victim-offender mediation, I imagined a very confrontational interaction that could potentially get violent.  I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do it.  Five years later, now I can’t believe that more people don’t pursue this process. I was amazed at the capacity of all four people to reach across this seemingly unbridgeable divide and find understanding and in some cases forgiveness.

Restorative justice is very intriguing to me and it seems so intuitive. The best way to have an offender accept responsibility is to have him be directly accountable to the person he harmed.  And if you are a survivor or victim, the best way to feel vindicated is to be able to express your feelings directly to the person who harmed you. While this process is not right for everyone, it is astounding to see how much it can help people who are ready for it. 

I believe that there are universal lessons that can be learned from the four people in "Beyond Conviction." While many of us will not experience the traumas they have endured, I hope that the film will challenge us to not only re-think the role of vengeance in meting out justice, but also how we each deal with conflict in our personal lives.