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Cover 06/12/2013

Murder Destroyed Charity Lee's Family, Forever Altered Her Concept of Justice





Paris and Ella, ages 10 and 2

“I was stuck in the middle,” she said. “Neither side was really interested in motive … from the prosecution’s view, they had their killer, they’d get a conviction, they’d get justice.”

While Lee wanted Paris to be held accountable, “I also wanted to know what was wrong with him, why this happened, and how to help him.”

In the months following Ella’s murder, Paris’ defense attorney scared Lee away from mental health or counseling services for herself, warning her prosecutors could subpoena the files and use them against Paris in court, she claims. It wasn’t until two years later that Lee finally sought intensive counseling and was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress and major depressive disorders.

The day of Paris’ sentencing hearing, Lee didn’t know which side of the court to sit on. A bailiff grabbed a chair for her to sit in the middle aisle.

Criminal justice reformers in Texas continue to push for authorities to embrace a more nuanced approach they call restorative justice, particularly in instances of family-on-family crime.

“There’s this growing realization that our responses to crime haven’t been very effective any way you measure it, whether by rehabilitation, or recidivism, or by gauging victim’s satisfaction,” said Stephanie Frogge with University of Texas’ Institute for Restorative Justice & Restorative Dialogue. “What restorative justice suggests is that we need to look at what harm has occurred, and how do we repair that harm. The people that need to address it must include those most impacted by it: the victim, the offender, and the community.”

The idea, Frogge says, is not to create programs that supplant the existing criminal justice framework, but to incorporate services that bring more humanity to the system.

“We see cases like Charity’s, where you’ve a victim in a number of ways,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a group that lobbies the Texas Legislature for reforms. “The system right now doesn’t even know how to attempt to make a family like that whole again.”

Frogge and Yáñez-Correa lamented that a bill authored by Texas State House Rep. Ruth Jones-McClendon to expand victim-offender mediation programs for those charged with certain misdemeanor offenses died in the most recent regular legislative session.

There are only a handful of programs in Texas that currently embrace this philosophy, said Frogge, and they’re predominantly in the juvenile justice system or in schools. She pointed to a restorative justice program implemented at Ed White Middle School in San Antonio three years ago, which stresses communication among students and between teachers anytime disciplinary action is taken. UT’s Institute for Restorative Justice & Restorative Dialogue is currently reviewing data from the program to gauge how well it works.

Yáñez-Correa says such an approach could be particularly valuable if used in crimes involving family members.

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