After crime, reconciliation
IT'S hard to reconcile the two incidents. On a sparkling spring day in 1984, three rifle shots ripped the silence of a sleepy little town halfway between Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. As two men fell wounded, a sniper across the street turned the gun barrel toward himself, pulled the trigger -- and missed.
More than a year later, the same three young men sat face to face in a white clapboard church less than 50 yards from the site of the shooting. The church's austere anteroom was taut with tension and fear. But no violence broke out. Instead, after all three men had poured out their feelings of hurt, anger, and confusion, one victim thrust a hand out to his assailant. ``I will never forget what you did to me,'' he said. ``You almost killed me, and I could've killed you for it. But I can forgive you.'' When the meeting ended, the two spoke earnestly together about ways of using their experience to benefit the community.
Violence had been transformed into a peaceful understanding. Bitter enemies had found a common ground. How? For many of the 60,000 people who live in the rolling farmland of Genesee County, N.Y., the answer is simple: Dennis J. Wittman cared.
Indeed, as coordinator of the sheriff department's Community Service and Victim Assistance programs, Mr. Wittman devotes his life to helping victims -- and offenders -- get their lives back on track.
``We're trying to salvage human beings,'' he says in a soft voice that burns with intensity. ``The question is, `How do we help them turn the corner? How can we help them get on with their lives?' ''
After working with criminal offenders for more than 12 years as a county probation officer, the curly-haired counselor became convinced of one thing: The effects of violent crime on a victim and a community can't be wiped away just by shipping the offender off to prison. There can be no peace of mind, he says, unless the victim is linked to the legal process right from the beginning.
But that rarely happens. ``Our country's justice system is held in such low esteem because it excludes victims and communities,'' says Wittman. ``When you start intensively working with the victim early on, you start the healing process. But the more . . . you leave them out of the legal process, the more they will feel victimized, not just by the offender but by the justice system itself.''
That's why Whittman, a former theology student, ministers to victims of violent crime. ``He's doing literally cutting-edge work,'' says Mark Umbreit, director of the National Victim-Offender Reconciliation Resource Center in Valparaiso, Ind. Mr. Umbreit, who assisted Wittman in the sniper case, says there are about 30 community programs in the United States designed for reconciling victims and offenders. But Wittman is the only one working with violent felonies.
Today, Wittman wheels his unmarked patrol car up a gravel driveway to the dilapidated home of the accused sniper. Inside, the young man and his family gather around a plain Formica kitchen table to talk about Wittman's brand of ``Genesee justice.''
The conversation, restricted to generalities about the ongoing trial, turns naturally to the dramatic turning point -- the victim-offender reconciliation meeting. ``I was shakin' in my boots,'' recalls the defendant. He feared not only verbal slingshots -- but physical attack.
Wittman plays down the danger. A pretrial meeting is risky, certainly, because it goes against the grain of traditional justice. But it's not too dangerous, he says, because victims -- despite their volatile emotions -- usually don't want to lash out at their assailants.
Eight miles north, across a string of wheat fields and dairy farms, that observation is confirmed. A woman whose child was sexually abused by her brother-in-law quietly talks about her outrage. ``I wanted to hurt him bad,'' she says of her husband's brother. She continues to talk even as her five-year-old son -- the victim in the case -- bounds through the living room. ``I wanted him to pay, but I wanted him to pay in a constructive way.''
That same desire for a productive resolution led the victims in the sniper case to ask for the reconciliation meeting. Wittman stresses that the meeting -- and the victim's expression of forgiveness -- did not happen by chance. They stemmed from hard work, by the victims, Wittman himself, and -- most of all -- the offender.
In the year following the shooting, Wittman says he visited the victims' homes more than 60 times. He listened to stories about drugs, alcohol, and disputed girlfriends. He prepared a victim-impact statement. And he drafted an affirmative agreement between the victims and the offender. The young offender, sticking to the terms of the agreement, began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, visiting a counselor, and doing community service.
Wittman's compassion for victim and offender reflects an untraditional view of law and order. ``The mentality of law enforcement is to apprehend, arrest, convict, and incarcerate,'' he says. ``We're looking for alternatives.''
In Genesee County, those alternatives were formalized in 1982 after the Edna McConnell-Clark Foundation offered the sheriff's department a two-year, $70,000 grant to develop a program in victim assistance and community service. Wittman was chosen to be its catalyst by Sheriff W. Douglass Call, a man who shares his background in theology. The experiment wouldn't have worked without the right chemistry, including the surprising support of the district attorney, the county judges, and state Supreme Court Judge Glenn R. Morton.
``How you can have an informed judgment without the victim is beyond me,'' says Judge Morton, noting that Wittman's work provides him with a vital decisionmaking tool. What gives the program even more ``teeth'' and ``credibility,'' he says, is its direct connection to the sheriff's department.
But it's Wittman ``who is out in the trenches every day,'' Sheriff Call says. The lively sheriff marvels at Wittman's sense of obligation to the community. And he lauds his honesty, sensitivity, and ability to build trust quickly.
People touched by Wittman's work tend to pour out praise. Without him, says the mother of the sexually abused child, ``it would have been a scenario of frustration. We would have thought, `Where is the justice?' ''
The father of the accused sniper agrees. ``If it hadn't been for the program,'' he says, ``he would've been headed for Attica.'' Indeed, his son seemed destined for five to 15 years in prison. But since Wittman's involvement, the charges have been reduced from attempted murder to attempted assault. And the judge, Wittman says, is leaning toward a community-based sentence. ``From what I was then to the way I feel now,'' says the defendant, searching for words, ``. . . it's unbelievable.'' His parents nod, thanking Wittman for saving their son's life. Do you know a peacemaker?
If you know an individual, anywhere in the world, who is actively involved in reducing violent confrontation between people, we invite you to tell us. Selected individuals will be contacted by the Monitor for future peacemaker profiles. To be considered, nominees must: Be people, not organizations Be personally involved in resolving violent confrontations Have a record of success in working out peaceful solutions PEACEMAKERS HIGHLIGHTED SO FAR Marianne Diaz, who prevents street-gang violence in the barrios of Los Angeles. May 8
Nico Smith, a white South African minister who tries to bridge South Africa's black-white divide. May 21. COMING SOON Young New Yorker mediates school disputes. Avoiding fights between shrimpers in Texas.
Send your letters to: The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115, Attention: Editor for Special Projects/P214 (Peacemaker). Please include your address and phone number.